Book Review: Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns

I recently introduced my congregation to a three-week sermon series that I developed and titled “Better Worship.” The idea is simple. Any person in the pew can improve the worship experience by doing three things (none of which cost them or the congregation a single penny). They can (1) “Speak up” (2) “Sing Out” and (3) “Listen Up.”

In preparation for my sermon titled “Sing Out” I purchased and read Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns. The book is a biting critique against pop culture’s pervasive effect on twenty-first century North American evangelical worship. At eleven years old, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns is practically geriatric in the rapidly shifting cultural preferences that dictate much of what constitutes discussions regarding the so-called “worship wars” between “contemporary” and “traditional” service types.

And yet, in spite of its 2010 publishing date, the book is surprisingly timeless. I say that, because just five weeks ago or so Rev. Dr. Paul Raabe (former professor of Old Testament theology at Concordia Seminary) published an opinion piece on titled, “How Lutheran Hymns Lost Their Monopoly in the Missouri Synod.” It predictably blew-up (at least within LCMS circles). It’s already reached 4500 clicks, generated 39 comments to the original article, and resulted in countless untracked comments and discussions on various social media platforms.

To what extent Lutheran hymns ever held a ‘monopoly’ in the Missouri Synod is debatable, and Raabe’s opinion piece quickly moved from how this occurred to what he thinks should have occurred. That’s an appropriate move for an opinion piece and I begrudge Dr. Raabe nothing. In the interest of full disclosure, I agree with Dr. Raabe on how it occurred, and strongly disagree with the conclusion that “the only way forward is for every generation to raise up hymn composers who can put strong theological wording to the musical sound of today and tomorrow” (my emphasis). I disagree with Dr. Raabe’s conclusion for the same reason I wouldn’t recommend the LCMS raise up OT scholars who can pen good commentaries to the higher-criticism framework of today and tomorrow.

Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns dives into over-tired “worship wars” in order to deny the premise. He argues that the very character of pop-music is antithetical to the character of worship. 

T. David Gordon is honest about his goal for the book. He asks, “Why is it that so many people effectively cannot sing traditional hymns? Why, for so many people, do these hymns seem foreign? Why do they seem so strange, unfamiliar, and inaccessible?” (11) [emphasis original]. Gordon answers these questions, but he does so very emotionally, and his seething hatred of contemporary worship music is immediately apparent and makes it difficult to read his book charitably, especially if you disagree with him. I happen to generally agree with his assessments and conclusions, and even I was put-off by his vitriol for contemporary music. With all that said, his critiques remain salient. 

Gordon’s argument is thus: Johnny cannot sing hymns because of the ubiquity of pop music. All he ever hears is pop-music. He hears it as background music at grocery stores. It’s on the radio, TV, and in media programming. Thus, “we think we are choosing to listen to pop music, when in fact we are not choosing, any more than a Kentucky coal miner flatters himself that he “chooses” English. He does not compare and prefer English to (for example) French; English is all he knows” (15) [emphasis original]. Simply put. Johnny can’t sing hymns because he doesn’t recognize hymns as a coherent or intelligible musical expression, in the same way that I would find your speech incoherent and unintelligible if you spoke to me in Mandarin.

Gordon quickly focuses is ire on pop-music in general. He states that pop music, “has been developed for commercial reasons, and is almost exclusively associated with fairly superficial amusement, one must raise the question whether a musical form so associated with superficial amusement is ever an appropriate vehicle for a religion that requires repentance, sacrifice, obedience, and selflessness” (60–61). This reflection leads to his next question, “Is the content of worship trivial or ironic? And if not, then why attempt to put serious content into a nonserious form?” (63). 

The rest of Gordon’s arguments move on from there. He often makes valid points, but hurries to the worst possible conclusions while ignoring all other possibilities.

The title of the book is Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns. The “why” is provided within the first twenty pages of the volume. The next 160 pages are a diatribe as to why contemporary worship music is very unhealthy for the church and its goals.

Gordon’s arguments are often logically sound. And their philosophical framework make his critiques more substantive than most. The aggressively-critical tone makes the book almost entirely unpalatable for anyone who doesn’t already agree with his position, which is a terrible shame because the book raises valid concerns. 

And that’s the great irony of Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns. In a volume that argues that the form and tone of music should match the message and goal of a worship service to the transcendent and Triune God, Gordon’s own aggressively-critical tone undermines his book’s goal of constructively adding his voice to an already too-loud and too-emotional discussion.

WHY JOHNNY CAN’T SING HYMNS: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal. By T. David Gordon. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010. 189 pages. $12.99.