Gordon, T. David. Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2010.
In this slim book Gordon challenges the idea that worship music styles are merely a matter of preference or taste. It astounds him that an aspect of the worship of God can be dismissed as insignificant or unimportant—something not likely to be said about the way the Lord’s Supper is observed. Gordon is as much concerned about the lack of thoughtful, theological discussion about the wide-ranging changes in Christian worship as he is about the changes themselves.
At the core of Gordon’s argument is the contention that aesthetics are not relative, that form shapes content, and that non-verbal messages often accompany our words. Given these contentions, Gordon argues that Christians must ask what popular musical aesthetics, forms, and meta-messages communicate. Is their communication consistent with or at odds with the Christian message?
Gordon finds pop music culture to be focused on contemporaneity. He finds it commercialized, sentimental, casual, and youth focused. These values are at odds with Christianity. Gordon believes that Christianity ought to value tradition and history (which he distinguishes from moribund traditionalism). Christianity ought to place a higher value on the wisdom of elders than on youth. It should foster deep sentiments, but it should not be sentimental. Christians ought to be reverent, not casual, in their approach to God. He finds pop music too trivial a medium for the worship of the true God.
Gordon does not argue that such music is sinful or unlawful for the church to use. He simply argues that lawful is not enough.
Gordon advocates a recovery of traditional hymn-singing. This does not mean that he wants to sing only old songs. Traditional or sacred music is still being composed in the present. But he does wish the church to make full use of the heritage bequeathed to it. Gordon recognizes that such a recovery cannot happen in a day. It will take time. But for the richness of the church’s hymn tradition to be recovered, at the very least the conversation that Gordon has started must continue. The style of worship music cannot be dismissed as unworthy of discussion, as being merely a matter of taste.
Frank Mott Harrison’s biography of John Bunyan reads like a novel. It nevertheless manages to weave in copious quotations from original source material. Perhaps this attests as much to Bunyan’s skill as a writer as it does to Harrison’s. The scholar would doubtless wish that footnotes clarified between what is quoted and what is inferred from the sources. For those wishing a readable, devotional study of Bunyan, this is an excellent choice.