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Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns

I don’t have time to do a full-fledged review of this new book by T. David Gordon (author of Why Johnny Can’t Preach), but I do want to highly recommend it to you. I couldn’t agree more with Gordon’s approach, underlying assumptions, and conclusions in this book.

Gordon argues that pop culture has so changed the fabric of society today as to create an environment in which good music is almost impossible to appreciate. His historical, culture, and musical analyses are spot on, in my opinion.

One of the best points Gordon makes is that most people today, even most Christians, are driven by a desire to be “contemporary.” “Contemporaneity” has become itself a virtue for most people, even Christians. It makes anything traditional or historic unattractive or even detestable. But Gordon argues that this “virtue” runs contrary to biblical values.

I think his argument here is important because I’ve heard many who even claim to be “conservative” who insist that we’ve got to have “fresh” sounding songs or settings of old hymns. Who says? Certainly not the Bible. What they are being driven by is an underlying assumption that contemporaneity is a virtue in itself.

Anyway, I hope to do a more thorough review eventually, but I wanted to recommend this excellent little book to you for your edification.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Cutlure, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and three children.

5 Responses to Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns

  1. Scott,
    Wouldn't most of the conservative users of contemporary music defend the "fresh" stuff based on the scripture's call for a "new" song? The Bible doesn't require abandoning old, but it does ask for a new song that many would define as "fresh." I think your suggestion that they are motivated by the virtue of contemporaneity is a straw man. Perhaps you could restate this legitimate problem in a better way.

  2. I'm not against new songs, for certain. But most of those, even conservative, who claim that we need "new" or "fresh" songs usually (in my experience) do so on the basis that we need to keep people's attention or engage them in some new way. That is an illegitimate argument in my opinion.

    And I don't think Scripture's "new song" has anything specifically to do with music. It's ironic that that passage is used to defend both the conservative and contemporary philosophy!

  3. Scott, two comments:

    Firstly, whilst I am in favor of quality contemporary music, it does sadden me that much of the historic hymnody is being forgotten. For example, I was recently reminded of the hymn "Our Lord is now rejected" (The Crowning Day) that I haven't sung in 25 years, and I thought that the church has really lost something through the neglect of music like this (I hope it's one you like). So I was wondering what do you think can be done to increase the use of more traditional music, given that it is going against the cultural tide.

    Secondly (this is a bit off-topic but I couldn't find the suggestion box), I'd love to see you give some examples of the sort of traditional hymns that you feel are appropriate for use in conservative worship.

  4. Holding PhDs in Musicology & Composition from the Royal Academy of Music London my take is as follows: Too often we Christians give heed to the rather self-imposed heretical non-essentials of personal liberty-of-conscience issues causing factions and untimely dissolutions of our churches. The issue of music is amongst the most contended of these issues. Romans 14 gives us much freedom as to what we individually call important or non-essentials to others as long as we are not causing others to become ‘circumcised’, if you will, into my own frame of reference of what is deemed ‘Holy’ or not acceptable. I am not addressing those doctrinal issues, essential faith requirements of orthodoxy, which are never to be diluted into mere options of choice, thus relegating the Christian faith into a country club membership. Certainly, unabashed insensitivities to cause other to stumble into sin, which is the most favourable meaning of the phrase ‘cause to offend’ rather than, which is preferred as one might desire tea over coffee, thus being offended shouldn’t be the goal of forced opinion. Neither being offended is to be meant as if it should use it as a guise to mandate one’s opinion. It should be considered that the actual sounds of the music less the lyrics found in 19th century hymns are primarily from the Western-cultured system of music utilising twelve tones, which is not licensed as mere ‘Christian’ to infer invention, hence, now found corrupted by contemporary sorts. I should be quite clear here as to the proper use of theology in the lyrics must always prove essential and never heretical as Mr. Gordon rightly professed. Bach composed baroque music in the style of his day and culture, as did all the other composers of various musical periods. They also did this, as was their profession for lucre sake as was Bach’s becoming a musical hireling, and Handel’s composing ‘The Messiah’. Are we to think Mr. T. David Gordon’s book smacks of his bias that only the ‘Good ole’ Gospel sounding Hymns are what is played on Heavens’ airways? Most assuredly not. Many of the one hundred plus year-old hymns use archaic British English that most Americans have already flushed out of their Bibles, thus naming it the NASB version. This is quite fine by me. This is not my concern; however, after hearing Mr. Gordon being interviewed on the Janet Mefford show last evening I was taken aback that he would reference people in prison camps as quite adaptable at learning new things, hence we should and could have a hymnal style-sounding approach to worship in our churches and for this ideology I am concerned. Moreover, my challenge to proponents of ‘older music’ who hold that the ‘worship’ music of today’s pop-culture is inept to producing an environment of communion with God need to better inform their congregates the proper definitions of some basic words such as worship, praise, and adoration for they may have similarities; however, they are not innately synonymous. Thank you.

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