Book Review: Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns

“Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal” by T. David Gordon

It’s no secret that, in most of today’s churches, hymns have given way to “praise choruses” as the predominant form of music used in corporate worship services. Why is this? Is this a conscious choice to not sing hymns, or is it — as the title suggests — that the average Christian today can’t sing hymns?

These are the type of questions asked in Gordon’s book, a sequel of sorts to his previous book Why Johnny Can’t Preach. Both books take their title from a 1955 book by Rudolf Flesch called Why Johnny Can’t Read, which showed that changes in society and in the educational methods being introduced to the schools at that time (particularly what has now become known as the “look-say method” of reading) had produced a generation unable to read.

In this latest book, Gordon successfully builds his case that the average Christian today is unable to understand or appreciate either the musical or theological content in traditional hymns. While he also argues for the importance and value of the church’s rich tradition of hymnody, he avoids making any sort of legalistic claims that churches must use one form of music over another. As he says in the introduction, this book is intended to be descriptive, rather than prescriptive.

The reasons for our inability to sing hymns are many, but can be more or less separated into two categories: musical and theological.

Musically, “pop culture” has conditioned us to not even recognize — much less appreciate — non-pop forms of music. Whereas in previous generations, people were likely to be familiar with (and hear roughly equal amounts of) several different genres of music, today we are surrounded by one genre of music all the time. We hear commercial music while we drive, while we watch TV, while we shop, while we exercise, etc. We hear it so often, “pop” music has become our definition of “music”, to the point where other forms of music sound foreign to us.

Furthermore, because almost all music and television programming today is designed to get us to buy stuff (if we won’t tune into a TV or radio station we won’t hear and be influenced by the advertising), it is produced around a lowest-common-denominator type of thinking. It can’t disgust us or make us think too hard. It must be neither beautiful nor ugly, but banal and inconsequential.

This affects our ability to sing hymns in a couple ways. First of all, the general level of musical appreciation and aptitude is greatly reduced from previous generations. Most people today never learn to read music, much less sing harmonies. Neither is required to learn and sing today’s popular music.

Secondly, because we have learned to tune out (no pun intended) most music we hear as inconsequential (how often do you actually listen to, rather than merely hear, the music playing while you buy your groceries?), we begin to treat all music in this style as inconsequential. When the songs we sing at church sound just like the music we hear all the time, it becomes very easy to tune them out and treat their content as inconsequential.

This leads into our theological inability to sing hymns. As Gordon states, the form of music is itself part of the content of a song’s message. We must be conscious of the “meta-messages” (nonverbal messages that accompany our actual words) conveyed by the music we sing. If Christians say that Christ is of utmost importance, and that the Lord’s Day is the time we come together to actually meet with the Lord of the Universe, what message is communicated by singing His praises using a form of music judged to be inconsequential?

Gordon illustrates his point with the example of a wedding. Most Christians demonstrate that we still believe that some events are more significant than others, and that we mark these significant events with significant, formal music (and attire). If weddings, graduations, and other rituals are marked by challenging music and fancy clothes, yet our worship services are marked by inconsequential music and casual dress, which do we communicate is more important: a human wedding, or Christ’s wedding to the church?

These meta-messages have also been combined with a mentality (consistent with our society’s at-large rejection of things that are old and/or difficult) that churches should be designed to appeal to and attract everyone, even non-believers. One result has been a “dumbing-down” of worship song lyrics. When combined with shorter, pragmatic sermons and a general lack of discipleship, a theologically illiterate congregation is produced, which is unable to comprehend the deep doctrinal truths contained in our hymnals.

There are a few areas where I would disagree with Gordon, or at least ask for more clarity. For instance: though I agree that our churches would benefit much from a greater focus on traditional hymns (distinguished in the book from “old” hymns, as he points out that there are great hymn writers living and working today; Stuart Townend is a specific example given), I do believe that there is a place for “contemporary Christian music”, though where that place may be is certainly debatable. Does Gordon object to this style of music even as casual listening in non-corporate worship settings? He doesn’t say.

I also believe there is value to setting older traditional hymn lyrics to newer music, which Gordon seems to reject. I think the claim that people will automatically fail to grasp or understand the significance of lyrics simply because of the musical setting is false, and doesn’t give today’s Christians enough credit… surely we aren’t that dumb yet. Of course, without solid preaching and discipleship it won’t matter what the music sounds like.

Finally, Gordon seems to have a personal vendetta against the guitar. This is a point which is quite overstated in the book. While many of his arguments against the guitar as an accompanimental instrument are valid, most of his experience seems to be with poor guitar playing and sound mixing. I wonder whether he ever accounts for the possibility of someone taking the guitar seriously as an instrument, and playing it tastefully and appropriately for worship settings. Of course, as a guitarist myself, I have a definite bias in the opposite direction!

Those few issues aside, this is a great book, and one much needed in the discussion of church music. Even on the points when others may not agree with Gordon’s conclusions, his questions are the right ones. It is refreshing to read a logical, well-reasoned consideration of worship music. I commend it to anyone, but to pastors and worship leaders in particular. Buy it here.

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