Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns, by T. David Gordon

Guest post by Jonathan

I'm here today with some thoughts on the book Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal, by T. David Gordon. As you probably know, occasionally Carrie will receive complimentary copies of new releases by some publishing houses, and I saw this one arrive and snatched it up!

This particular subject is near and dear to my heart, having originally been trained as a classical pianist, and then participating on church worship teams over the last 10+ years. Churches we have been involved in have run the gamut of worship styles, from Sunday-morning services matching Christian radio's countdown of hits, to environments where "How Great Thou Art" would be considered contemporary worship music.

Of course, just like everybody else, there are particular styles of music that I feel most comfortable and "at home" with. If you pop open the CD player in my car, you'll recognize at a glance the music I enjoy the most. And, yes, Carrie and I have quite different tastes in this area! But that's just fine with me, and you're welcome to your own musical styles also. I am A-OK with diversity when it comes to music preferences.

That was always the philosophy that I approached corporate worship with, as well. Particular churches found their musical identity in one form or another for Sunday morning services, and that was fine with me -- after all, who am I to judge? And, more specifically, who is T. David Gordon to judge?! So, I was eager to read through this book. (A process which still took me about 100x as much time as Carrie seems to be able to read books in, but whatever! It's not like a competition or anything. Right, honey?)

So, having just finished it up, I have a ton of thoughts flying through my mind that I will try to articulate. First of all, from the perspective of being a well-written, thought-provoking, scripturally-based treatise on music and worship in the church, this book is an ace in the hole. But what's more important than the presentation in my mind are specifically the arguments made.

Let's start out with some fundamentals. Why do we, as a congregation of believers on any given Sunday morning, express worship in the form of music, at all? Well, because it is a God-ordained method of doing so, solidly endorsed throughout scripture. (Start with the book of Psalms and work your way in either direction.) We can certainly express worship individually through a variety of art forms, but singing has the distinction of being a corporate activity, with participation by young and old.

So, then, what is our goal in singing songs of worship corporately? Based on the examples of scripture, to declare God's glory, righteousness, mercy, and grace. Any other motivation should absolutely be swept off the table. This is where it gets uncomfortable. There is absolutely no scriptural basis for worship songs which are written to:
  • Make us feel good
  • Draw unbelievers to Christ
  • Adopt popular styles to minimize "uncomfortable" differences between the church's culture and the world's culture

Where does this leave us? Quite simply, we don't get to decide what makes a particular song more or less suitable for corporate worship based on our personal musical preferences; we have to evaluate the song based on how effectively it serves the purpose of ascribing glory to God.

Incredible attention to detail was given by the hymn selection committees of earlier years, who chose which songs to include (or exclude) when compiling hymnals. At least half a dozen criteria were used to determine if each hymn was suitable for corporate worship, considering the music and lyrics in great detail. But, in an amazing number of churches today, that type of thoughtful process has been thrown out the window and replaced by the simple requirement, "Does its musical style match what our church likes to play and listen to?"

The author does not claim that 100% of all contemporary worship music should be discarded without a second glance. He (and I) agree that there are some recent worship choruses to be found which have every quality necessary for corporate worship. However, he does argue that these specimens are few and far between, and that we, as thinking Christians, should be using our brains to evaluate a little more carefully the music we're using to worship God.

One example that comes to my mind is a song by Mark Schultz which seems to be stuck on "repeat" on most Christian radio stations lately. Here are some of its lyrics, which, by the way, score a 100% on the "tuneful chorus which will get stuck in your head" meter:

Every knee shall bow,
Every tongue confess,
That God is love
And love has come for us all

What an incredible distortion of the gospel! This kind of phrasing, while you might be able to argue could be interpreted in a way which technically resembles the truth, is rife with ambiguity. Following the "Every knee shall bow, every tongue confess" phrase (which absolutely comes from scripture, but in a totally different context) we run into statements which sound like to the average Joe like God loves him and is coming for him regardless of any particular faith or action on his part. How comforting! Not. Universalism deserves no more place in Christianity now than ever, and this kind of drivel should be never be allowed into our radio stations or churches.

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes, getting off the soapbox now.

So, as I was saying, the primary emphasis of this book is to make you think about the way you use music to express worship. I believe that we should all, as Christians, be doing more of this. T. David Gordon has done quite a lot of research and presents some interesting facts and arguments. (And, along the way, debunks the myth that Martin Luther set hymn lyrics to bar tunes.) If this topic sparks your interest in any way, check out his book. If it doesn't... well, maybe my next post will be sharing a casserole recipe. Right.


Barbara H. said...

Great post! I agree that we should be very careful especially that Christian music be based on a correct interpretation of Scripture.

I would agree that Christian music's primary purpose isn't to draw unbelievers, but I think it can some times. Psalm 40:3 comes to mind: "And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the LORD."

On one hand, I feel I've read "enough" about Christian music to form my views, but on the other hand, this does sound like a good book. I may have to check it out!

Janet said...

This sounds really good. I come from a very similar background and also have played on different worship teams, but lately I've been pretty ho-hum about it. This sounds like a book to make us more conscious of what we're about.

bekahcubed said...

That does sound like an interesting book.

I have to admit that, while I enjoy contemporary worship (in addition to more traditional forms), I get pretty riled about the theological laxity in so many modern lyrics. A lot of the lyrics range from questionable to downright heretical--which is one of the reasons I'm so excited that many churches are picking up the old hymns (whether set to their "original" music or with new, more "relevant" music.)

Anonymous said...

THis is a subject important to me as well. Very interesting post, I will read that book. We have a tendency to sing things without really thinking, comparing it to the truths of scripture. Two dangers: singing on auto-pilot and singing things contrary or at least not clearly true to God's Word. Thank you for a thoughtful post.
Jen N

Stephanie Kay said...

So, what kind of casserole will that recipe be? {kidding. Totally kidding.}

I couldn't agree with you more. Our church does a pretty good job of being careful about lyrics but I'm sure we can always do better.

Sometimes Christian music on the radio makes me crazy! Don't even get me started on "crossover" music!! Last fall I attended a great Christian women's conference but the music (conducted by a big-name Christian woman) was lacking. She used a lot of 50s, 60s, 70s music with the lyrics adjusted slightly to be sung to God. It was a lot of fun to sing the songs but I couldn't help wondering how many less than desirable memories were being brought up because of the secular love songs and those memories had to distract from worship.

I'll get off my soapbox now. :)

Melissa said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post! I agree that a substantial percentage of the music we hear on Christian radio doesn't qualify as worship music. (I think it has value, but not in corporate worship.)

I wouldn't categorize the Mark Schultz song as worship music. I agree that the tune will get stuck in your head! But I don't think the lyrics are totally off-base, either. What precedes that chorus says, "But I know there will come a day / When all our tears are washed away with a break in the clouds / His glory coming down and in that moment [Every knee shall bow, Every tongue confess ...]" I think the "for all" part refers to Christ's sacrifice "once for all." The lyric may be misleading, since not everyone will accept Jesus as Savior, but I don't think it's completely wrong.

I'm not trying to start an argument, and I do agree with most of what you've said. It's easy to get caught up in our personal preference and forget that worship isn't about us at all.

Have you read "Called to Worship" by Vernon Whaley?

B said...

I think I'll have to read this book.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, Jonathan! I think Hubby and I should both read this book, especially since he is involved with our worship team at church. How do we approach our worship leader about it, though? Seems like sensitive ground! I totally agree with your thoughts.

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