In his new book, Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns (P & R Publishing), T. David Gordon argues that modern worship choruses have trumped hymns in many congregations because for decades, we have been inundated with pop music—to the point that many of us don't know better. If you eat nothing but Big Macs, Gordon says, you will never appreciate a filet mignon.
A professor of religion at Grove City College, Gordon takes a media ecology approach, which he describes as the study of "the social and individual human consequences when a new medium is introduced to a culture." Regarding church music, Gordon says, media ecologists should ask how music, "once a participatory thing, became a passive thing. What happens when people who used to sing folk music around the house are now surrounded by Muzak? How does that alter our sensibilities of music?"
In the context of the church's "worship wars," Gordon's views may seem controversial and certainly will not stop the feuding. While not everyone will agree with him, his arguments can take the discussion about church music to a deeper, richer place. Christianity Today senior associate editor Mark Moring recently spoke with Gordon.
The media ecology approach brings a new perspective to the worship wars.
The wars are still going partly because none of the ways by which people tried to explain the wars were sticking. I think media ecology allows us to better understand the division. You could not explain the change [from traditional hymns to praise-and-worship songs] on either theological grounds or aesthetic grounds. So I started asking, On what grounds could we explain it?
The Reformation also changed worship music, but only after two-and-a-half centuries of serious theological discussion. It hasn't been the same with modern changes; the debate came about ex post facto. In fact, proponents of contemporary worship music do not consider singing "A Mighty Fortress" to be sinful, in the way that Calvin and Luther thought the Mass was sinful.
You write that we evangelicals are beholden to "contemporaneity." What do you mean?
Many are promoting an "aesthetic" that it is our duty to patronize living artists and not artists who are dead. Should we also not read books that are more than 50 years old, or enter buildings that are more than 50 years old? Christians aren't abandoning their buildings, and they haven't stopped reading Spurgeon or Edwards or Luther or Calvin. We haven't rejected other art forms that are not new. We've done so only with music.
Have we really rejected it, or do we just prefer modern music?
It's closer to rejection at this point. In every generation, gifted people would write some good hymns, and subsequent generations would enjoy them. Nothing new there. What's new is the notion that you have to have new music in a worship service. That's unprecedented. I'm asking why people feel this emotional distance from hymns that was not felt by generations before.
Today, traditionalists and contemporary enthusiasts both seem to be saying, "We'll do our thing, you do yours, and we'll agree to disagree." What's wrong with that?
It is always appropriate to articulate differences in a manner that encourages Christian fellowship and charity. But those of us who regret all denominational differences, on the ground that they become effective barriers to the highest expressions of Christian unity, also regret that "traditional" and "contemporary" have become their own denominations. So in this sense, it is never good for Christians to simply say to other Christians, "Go in peace, be warm and full." We first should try to understand our differences, then attempt to resolve them. Traditionalists have never excluded the contemporary; they have always encouraged the best artists of every generation to add to the growing, living tradition of hymnody. It is the contemporaneists who are often exclusive; there are some who exclude almost the entire Christian tradition.
I have consistently encountered this irony: Almost all defenders of contemporary worship music are aesthetic relativists ("It's just a matter of taste"), yet they are the ones who insist that the church abandon everything else in the name of what they deem "good taste." But why are they willing to see the church divided over what is "merely" a matter of taste?
You blame the ubiquity of pop music for the shift.
Remember the expression "elevator music"? The first Muzak was used in elevators for people who, when they went to the big city and got in an elevator for the first time, were a little anxious. So the Muzak people decided that with some pleasant background music, people's anxiety would go down. Before long, elevator music made its way into the dentist's office, then the mall, and now as you put gas in your car. We can't tune out the onslaught of pop music; we hear it as much as five to eight hours a day. People reach a point where nothing but pop music sounds like music.
Are you saying that if we hear enough of it, even if it's lousy, we reach a point where we don't recognize it as lousy?
Yes. Suppose the only piece of music in the whole world were "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." If that were all we had, we would be delighted, because we wouldn't know any better. What has happened with music is like how Billy Graham described religion when he said, "Some people have just enough religion to inoculate themselves against the real thing." Similarly, even music that isn't good still brings us some pleasure. And if we hear enough of such music, we just shrug and think that that's all there is.
That's not true for me. I grew up listening to pop and rock, but I prefer traditional hymns in worship. Suppose someone says, "I have eclectic tastes, but I simply prefer modern worship." What would you say?
Unless an individual chooses to listen to different kinds of music, the only thing that individual will hear (most of the time) is pop. Sure, one's sensibilities can be shaped deliberately, and many of us have developed tastes that we once did not have. (I spent years cultivating a taste for Brahms, whom I now love, and I spent about two years cultivating my appreciation for jazz.) If I did not believe that sensibilities could be cultivated, I wouldn't have written the book; it is, in some senses, a plea to shape them differently from the way commercial pop culture shapes them. But for people who do not take ownership of the cultivation of their sensibilities, other cultural gatekeepers will shape them for them—and in this case, they will shape them to prefer pop.
Apparently you think many have missed that argument. Why?
American evangelicals as a culture don't take art very seriously. We get our political theory from Englishmen like John Locke. We get our economic theory from Scotsmen. But we are very non-European in our refusal to take art seriously. It's the first thing to go when a school's budget is cut. And there's rarely any serious study of aesthetic theory. Consequently, I don't think church leadership has the liturgical or aesthetic or musical training necessary to get a handle on this. So now you have a marketing approach to Christianity: "What do people want? Let's give it to them."
Are all hymns superior to all modern worship?
In the book, I candidly state that many traditional hymns are outright dogs—just terrible. I never give specific examples, however, because there are always some people who love those dogs, and if I call their beloved song a dog, they will never hear anything else I say. I also think some contemporary hymns are very good; I especially appreciate Getty and Townend (e.g., "How Deep the Father's Love," "In Christ Alone").
Are there objective criteria for evaluating music?
Yes, and there are objective criteria for what makes some music better than other music. Sacred music has special demands beyond aesthetic demands. Some musicologists argue that hymnody is actually a subcategory of folk music—distinguished from classical music because classical music is performance music, beyond the capacity of the average person to produce. But folk music, by name, suggests music produced by the people. It's the way a people join their heritage, and it's participatory in its very nature. Therefore, I don't think hymns should strive to compete with Brahms's Ein deutsches Requiem or the solos in Handel's Messiah, because a congregation wouldn't be able to sing them. A hymn shouldn't be beyond the capacities of a good, intelligent church to sing. Now, some people are willing to work at singing well, and others …
Like me? Those who can't read music but enjoy singing hymns?
Hymns should be easy enough to learn for people who do not read music, so people can pick up the melody quickly. When I was a young child and we'd take drives, the family would sing folk music or hymns. If Mom or Dad started singing "Fairest Lord Jesus," we sang along, and before long we were harmonizing. And we couldn't read music. Hymns aren't too difficult to sing; most of them are easier to sing than the contemporary stuff.
I find it ironic that if I'm attending a blended service, the hymns will have the full musical score, though they don't need it, while the contemporary stuff, which is unfathomable without the musical score, doesn't have it. It's just lyrics up on the screen.
Many would disagree, saying modern tunes are easy to catch on to.
They are not really easier to learn than hymns (unless they are profoundly simplistic). They seem easier to some people whose sensibilities have difficulty with anything that is not pop. But musically speaking, they are not, as a genre, substantially easier; they just sound more familiar to our culture. When people describe them as "easy," what they mean is "familiar-sounding."
Many believe that kind of music is more "seeker-friendly."
But it's like reaching the rich young ruler by throwing money at him. The desire to reach the lost is wonderful, but that doesn't mean the strategy is well-suited to the task. I'm not so sure that accommodation to an individual's consumerist preferences is consistent with the gospel call. The gospel doesn't say, "You've got most things right, you just need to throw some Jesus in there." Rather, it says, "You've got everything wrong, because you're not correctly related to God. Therefore, you've got to be willing to give up everything—mother, father, sister, brother, daughter, whatever—to follow Christ. And if not, you're not worthy of him."
Will some people swallow hard and say no to that? Yes. But I'm not sure we should say, "Well, what kind of music do you like? After all, we're just worshiping God here, and we have no standards other than what you like." Saying "it's all about you" isn't the way to go about evangelism.
It might be better to say, "You may wonder why we sang a hymn today written by Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century. We do it because we think it's a good reflection on what our Redeemer did. We don't really care whether it's new or old." That might cause a person to say, "Here's one institution in the entirety of our culture that isn't driven by consumer preference. Isn't that curious?"
Your book is going to make some people mad.
Well, it's already done that, even though I thought I was about as gracious as I could be. The purpose isn't to disturb but to ask why, for the first time in Christian history, do we feel so cut off from previous hymnody? I think the media ecology answer is largely correct, because we are surrounded by music that has these kinds of musical qualities, and therefore we expect all music to have those qualities. But why should we allow the producers of commercial music to make those choices for the church?
Oddly enough, some of the people most sympathetic to my book are those who play in church praise bands. They say, "We work our f***ies off to find something we are not ashamed to play on Sunday, and you're right—it's hard to find any that's good." These people have been asked by their churches to do it, and so as good church people they are doing it. But they realize that most contemporary worship music has only one virtue: that it's contemporary. That isn't enough. It's just not a criterion that trumps all other criteria.
Many younger people are starting to appreciate hymns, and some churches are incorporating more hymns into their contemporary services. What are your thoughts on blended services?
I approve blended approaches only when the alternative is a split church. It's better to blend than to split. But better yet to be entirely unconcerned about whether a hymn sounds contemporary. No other generation was so concerned, and there is no good reason for ours to be so. The commercial forces that shape pop culture should not be the arbiters of how we worship God.
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Check back all this week for more articles from March's special issue on worship. Previously posted articles include:
The Hymns That Keep on Going | The 27 worship songs that have made the hymnal cut time and again. (March 7, 2011)
Whatever Happened to Amazing Grace? | Why John Newton's famous hymn failed to win, place, or show. (March 8, 2011)
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.