Review: Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal

David Gordon, P & R, 2010, 192 pages, 3 of 5 stars

Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 12.20.06 PMThe author of this fascinating book is an Anglican who listens to Black Sabbath and Led Zepplin on weekdays but sings high church hymns on Sunday. Why can’t Johnny sing hymns? According to Gordon, it is because he’s addicted to pop culture.

Gordon’s goal is to find out why we have a preference for music that is often literarily, theologically, or musically inferior. He labors to show the inferiority of CCM and why it is an example of “impoverished congregational praise.”

Gordon is wary of using contemporary music in worship services at all, objects to its common use and zealously opposes exclusive use.


The greatest value of this book is its emphasis on the style of music, a subject most modern worship books avoid altogether. I once asked Keith Getty if style was neutral. He said yes. But for Gordon, style matters.

Why do we attend a birthday party in a clown suit but not a funeral? Why not use a kazoo at a wedding? Style is not just a matter of personal taste. Style sends a message, like when Rick Warren wears open casual shirts to preach but a suit at Obama’s inaugural address. All music sends a message. Gordon thinks that the message of CCM is entertainment.

Another area where Gordon excels is that he forces those who comply with his perspective to go all the way. You can’t agree with his position and then listen to “Joyful, Joyful” while changing the oil in your car. Sacred music is that which is deliberately and self-consciously different from other forms of music. What does this say about those traditions that listen to Christian music all the time?

Gordon is arguing for rock and jazz and country and pop… just not in church. Church music is different—it should be sacred. CCM is so bad, he says, because it deliberately tries to sound like the music we hear every day. That is why he is so strongly against the most prominent kinds of evangelical music: CCM and 19th century sentimentalist revivalist hymns.

Moreover, he makes clear that pop overemphasizes the individual side when Christians ought to sing in order to encourage one another. We would expect this in the Facebook culture.


It was difficult to determine Gordon’s audience. Is he criticizing evangelicalism as a whole, Millennials, hipsters, or people like me? “For those who promote contemporary worship music, there tends to be an impatience even with this present discussion, because for them, ‘Hey, why fight about something like this—it’s only music, after all.” Bob Kauflin doesn’t hold Gordon’s position, but would he really say, “it’s only music after all”?

Second, by defining “contemporary” as anything after the sixties or any song with a guitar (“CCM has one absolute: thou shalt play the guitar”), he is alienating himself from a lot of rich, doctrinal music that is produced today. Is all Sovereign Grace music out?

Third, Gordon criticizes the ubiquity of pop music as background music. But isn’t Beethoven common background music in restaurants? Is this OK? If classical is profitable both blatant and backstage, how then does this argument stand? Perhaps Gordon would ask where classical music is in the background. We say: “At a fine restaurant, of course.” To which Gordon would say, “exactly.”

Fourth, Gordon often criticizes “new” as though “old” has inherent virtue. But all old things were new at one time. If, however, his main point is that we should not have casual worship services or that we must rely heavily upon time-tested music, I’m for it.

Finally, Gordon appears to underestimate the individual aspect of worship. Yes, Christianity is communal but it is also personal. The Apostles Creed does say “the communion of saints”, but it also says “I” three times. There are a lot of first person personal pronouns in the Psalms.

But let us give Gordon the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he undervalues the personal side of worship on purpose. In our culture of vanity, the elephant of evangelicalism has all of its weight on one side of the seesaw. Ten pounds of balanced words won’t even the scales. It will take whole volumes advancing the value of transcendent worship for the church to gain its equilibrium. Enter Gordon.

Gordon’s argument for transcendent worship over against the immanent raises a host of questions. He argues that one of the characteristics of high culture is the transcendent, enduring, and multi-generational. And because Christians also emphasize these aspects, sacred music fits well. But would this not make Scripture only for the elite, as Catholics have argued? Was it right to keep the Bible in Latin so only the educated clergy could study it?

Were the disciples’ a part of high culture? Would their worship services reflect that of Gordon’s church? Is it significant that Scripture was written in Koine Greek, the middle class tongue of the day? And is not the transcendent just one aspect of worship in Scripture? Is not Jesus also immanent, being called “brother”, “Shepherd” and “Savior”? Is he not within us (1 Cor. 6:19)?


John Frame has pointed out that the white-collar, High-Church mentality of many Presbyterian and Anglican churches has ostracized a plethora of their brethren from different races, cultures and social standings. Gordon and those who agree with his position must be careful not to fit into this category.

Nonetheless, let us applaud Gordon for addressing the role that style plays in music. I agree with his concerns and share in his repugnance for the narcissism of our culture today.

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