Book: T. David Gordon on Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns

The surprising thing about this contribution to the debate on worship is that it does not even touch on the so-called “Regulative Principle of Worship” though written by a nominal Presbyterian. The keynote is set by a passing remark in the middle of the book: “Note the way in which this rhetorical question is raised: the question is not whether it is lawful to employ a contemporary form; the question is whether it is appropriate.” (77)

As Presbyterians, such an appeal to subjectivity and neglect of our hard-fought principles, would make it easy to dismiss a book like this out of hand. It is also distressing that psalmody, not to mention the question of whether instruments are needed at all, is passed over without so much as a mention (other than an imperfect comment on p. 48), though both have an important place both in the early catholic church and throughout the Reformation period.

However, that line of criticism is not the approach I will take. Taking proper account of subjectivity is a worthwhile aim, even if it does not lead directly to enforceable norms. Examining it on its own terms will be the burden of this review.

His self-declared perspective is that of “media ecology,” purporting to follow in the footsteps of Marshall McLuhan and others. The gist of this method is to examine how much the medium of communication — its environment and presuppositions — affect the content of the matter being communicated. Extending the type of reflections from that discipline to church music gives Prof. Gordon his distinctive approach.

Examples of how the technique works are these:

  • “We would consider it in poor taste for someone to show up at a funeral in a clown suit, or to attend a wedding wearing a mask of Edvard Munch’s The Scream.” (60)
  • “I notice when my students get married, they almost always have some classical music or traditional hymns in their wedding…” (61)

In other words, the method is to observe coherences and disjuncts in how people actually behave, and use this to persuade of (rather than prove) an underlying, tacit principle. The problem of arbitrariness is partially addressed by proposing that one with greater capacities has the right to stand in judgment over the one with smaller capacities. At least, I think that is the import of this passage:

I find that some of Sinatra’s music makes me cringe because he had extraordinary difficulty with pitch. … But my friend, whose pitch is not very acute, doesn’t notice this…. Does this mean that Sinatra’s pitch was good, or does it mean that my friend’s ears are not sufficiently discriminating to hear that Sinatra’s pitch was off? I think we know the answer. (70)

In other words, those with greater capacity “know” that they perceive something real, even where there is no unanimity. Therefore, a method that seeks to persuade based on phenomenology rather than deduction has a leg to stand on.

Of course what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Amateurs often mistake playing a little sharp for a brighter tone; after a while, a soloist playing on pitch sounds flat to them. Moreover, intentionally singing a little flat gives a bluesy tone that is attractive in the right context, and is difficult to pull off, probably because of the natural tug toward sharpness. Jazz is full of intentional “bending” of notes, which exploits these phenomena on a shorter time scale. Similar observations could be made with respect to the beat. Frank Sinatra was actually a master of both beat and pitch. It is almost impossible to imitate him precisely. Try it some time, with a recording. (The problem with Frank Sinatra is not his pitch or rhythm, but the fact that his repertoire almost without exception expresses a life form that is lascivious and hedonistic.)

So, Prof. Gordon’s specific example is unfortunate. Nevertheless, there is some validity in the method. The high understands both the low and the high, while the low only understands the low. A mathematician might believe in complex numbers against the common sense objections, because he both understands the reasons for belief in complex numbers, and also thoroughly understands the motives and reasoning of the objector at his level. So the “high” has confidence.

In my opinion, the insights of this approach should be classified as a subsection of agrarianism. Observing that the “medium is the message” falls short of a serious critique until it is combined with a broader view of man’s place on the earth, the relation between town and land, work and leisure, kinship, culture, and hierarchy.

In his book, we find that good questions are raised, but a lack of sharpness is evidenced in the answers. Indeed, the problem can be seen starting with the title, Why Johnny can’t sing hymns. This is not the case. In fact, Johnny can sing hymns. Johnny even likes singing hymns, as anyone can discover by showing up for the favorite-hymn time. The problem is not Johnny; the problem is twenty-something Josh and Heather — especially Heather, I suspect. They simply do not want to sing hymns, even though they could sing them right well.  So the title should have been, “Why Heather refuses to sing hymns.” Actually, even that is a bit misleading. It is not so much that Heather refuses explicitly. She just finds herself drifting into a church that sings songs that suit her. She might not even be able to explain exactly how she ended up there. Josh wants to be there because Heather is there. And, in the market-driven church of the American scene, churches will emerge that satisfy her tacit demand, and others that wish to compete for her attentions. That, and not Johnny’s alleged inability, is more precisely the situation that is being addressed by Prof. Gordon’s book.

The danger with any attempt to discuss aesthetics is vulnerability to the charge of arbitrariness.  We don’t want to squelch all serious discussion of these matters by logic-chopping or pouncing on unprovable assertions too quickly. There is a place for persuasion that falls short of proof. But consider this assertion:

No one has ever written a requiem, for instance, to be accompanied by three people playing guitars. Why? Because death is still (for some of us anyway) a fairly serious matter, and guitar-playing just doesn’t sound serious; it sounds like casual amusement. (61)

This doesn’t seem to be a cogent insight. The guitar often functions as Gordon’s whipping-boy, so it will be well to analyze some of his digs. Guitars strumming to Young Life choruses is one thing, a piece of classical repertoire played by Andres Segovia is something else. Serious renaissance music was often accompanied by lute, which we can take as of the same family with the guitar. I could share recordings of great music by both Joe Green and Claude Mountaingreen that include sections with guitar-like accompaniment to vocals (I mean, of course, Verdi and Monteverdi).  So there seems to be an unwarranted arbitrariness in this assertion.

Moreover, there is something anachronistic about his guitar thesis. Until the Romantic period, there were not vocal pieces with piano accompaniment either. This is partly because the piano had not been invented. But there is also a mysterious congruence or organic mutuality going on here: it is hard to imagine music pre-Bach sounding good on a piano, and not much Bach. The piano and its repertoire belong together, and that togetherness can be understood historically as well.

Likewise, with the guitar.

The hymnbook-accompanied-by-piano aesthetic came to its own in the 19th and early 20th century. Let’s not kid ourselves. A church that is using accompaniment other than the organ is tapping into a “tradition” that only goes back about a century, no matter how traditional it may vaunt itself. And the organ has problems of its own. Magnificent as the king of instruments is, I have never seen an exception to my rule that it kills off congregational singing. Or rather, congregational singing becomes, not 200 people singing together, but 200 people singing to themselves, accompanied by private organ.

So, Prof. Gordon may think he has good reasons against the guitar, but until he puts forward an alternative that can sustain equally withering criticism, it is hollow.

More subtle, and thus more dangerous, is the next example. He says,

I notice when my students get married, they almost always have some classical music or traditional hymns in their wedding, even if every other week of the year they attend a church that uses contemporary music in its worship….I believe the marriage between Christ and his bride, the church, is more significant than any merely human marriage. (61)

There are several quibbles that could be made here. I suspect some young people would be fine with all-contemporary music at their wedding. Mrs. Schlissel apparently walked down the aisle to Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. Perhaps consideration of the feelings of parents and others motivates most to include at least some traditional fare. This is the problem with an argument of “some.” Is the concession on the side of the contemporary or the traditional?

Second, there seems to be a difference between an event that is singular (as a wedding should be) vs. one that is repeated (as weekly worship is). For example, suppose rather than a once-for-all giving of vows, being married entailed a weekly ritual reenacted with others doing the same thing. Is it not quite easy to imagine that the same people that would choose traditional music in the singular type of experience, might loosen up considerably in the weekly reenactment?

Thirdly, the “classical music” that is often included in weddings is often of the “secular” type (think Elsa’s wedding march) that would be inappropriate in a worship service, and thus there are disanalogies even at the level of the music itself.

Fourth, the weekly worship is not marriage feast between Christ and his bride. That is still future. If anything, this argument would be a way to argue for expecting a certain formality to prevail at that future great day, if such an argument is interesting to anyone.

I am not saying there is nothing worth pondering here. The conclusion has some merit, but the argument is weak as it stands. Mr. Gordon needs to pull the threads more dexterously.

In general, we need to beware of arguments that are fallacious, even though the conclusion happens to be true. “If the moon is made of green cheese then Tim is an ornery bachelor” is true, and a proposed conclusion, “Tim is an ornery bachelor” is also true. From this, one might forget to notice that slipping in the minor premise, “the moon is made of green cheese” leads to a valid argument with a true conclusion, and it can be easy to forget to attack the minor, the falsity of which makes it an unsound argument.

Gordon wants to demonstrate that contemporary music is unworthy because trivial, insignificant. He does this by making an identification between what he calls “commercial” music and contemporary music in general, coupled with an economic explanation for why commercial music tends to the trivial:

Because the advertisers want a large audience, the producers of the programs must make them easily accessible to the population at large. They cannot produce programming that is profoundly offensive, and they cannot produce programming that is difficult to follow, programming that requires a steep learning curve. So what do they produce? Programming that is fairly insignificant. (67)

Again, there is confusion in this statement. For starters, what kind of programming is “profoundly offensive,” and why would anyone favor that? And is not one of the advantages of “traditional” church music just that it is not “difficult to follow” nor does it “require a steep learning curve”?

But let’s try to capture his point sympathetically. Probably fans of every kind of music, from hard rock to jazz to classical, grant that elevator music is trivial. What would be interesting would be an examination of why it is trivial, what is its essence that makes it so? But the question here is, if Gordon’s economic explanation is sound, why is it not the case that all radio stations play only elevator music? Clearly, a more sophisticated economic analysis would show that as listeners are picked up on the left, others are lost on the right. Moreover, to the extent that the enterprise is profitable, more players enter the market, and they can pick up market share at the margin by appealing to groups disenfranchised by the mob-appeal strategy of the first station. Eventually, a certain segment specialization sets in, whereby in a large metropolitan area, music can be found on the airwaves for every taste. And when the dust settles, we find that very few of the stations play elevator music, music that everyone agrees is trivial.

The attempt to give this distinction more focus is made in Chapter 6, “Three musical genres.” Two of the categories have been highlighted before by others, and could be labeled high-brow and folk. At the outset, we can approve of this distinction as long as qualifications are made that are not at all made explicit in this book. In the two-pole model, we recognize that “the masses” are never going to listen to the late string quartets of Beethoven with pleasure, yet there is a kind of music that does nourish them: it is not that they are amusical. The two-fold distinction attempts to account for this.

However, we need to also account for the fact that there are many grades within the “high” category at least. Of the set of people that regularly enjoy music that would be called “refined,” only a small minority even of them are gripped by the late quartets. And that group will include many, perhaps a majority, that scorn the music of Tchaichovsky. Yet almost everyone sees what Wittgenstein would call a family resemblance between a broad range of music commonly identified as “classical,” despite the infighting within the ranks of its aficionados. In short, the “high” category is actually a mountain that people climb to different heights before stopping.

The high and low actually just describe poles of relative strength. If all music was ranked, there could be an argument as to the precise place to draw the line between high and low, without upsetting the polarity as such.

However, Prof. Gordon favors a third division, “pop,” and this I am afraid upsets the apple cart. The “low” or folkish is now promoted to a middle position, where it floats around amorphously.

Both the high (classical) and low (folk) share these attributes: transcendent, multi-generational, significant, communal (84). They differ only in being less or more “accessible” respectively. The “pop” on the other hand, is opposite on all points shared in common between the high and low: immanent, monogenerational, banal, individualistic, as well as accessible. (87-88)

If the kind of music that accompanies Brittny Spears or the Material Girl is what is meant by “pop,” then an analysis should include the video aspect, as well as a critique of public decency. Moreover, contemporary church music does not sound like that kind generally.

Indeed, “Christian music” has become its own genre, even listed as a satellite radio category, and quickly becomes as recognizable as its own genre as country versus rock. So in a sense, the sacred/secular bifurcation of music has been preserved. It is simply not the case, as he asserts, that “in leisure time, they listen to pop music; in worship, they listen to pop music.” (76). I’m not sure very many people even listen to pop music, if that is defined as commercial music or that which all aficionados agree is trivial. And whatever is going on in contemporary worship, it cannot be modeled as mere listening.

(A more thorough approach might be to adapt C. S. Lewis’s thesis explained in Experiment in Criticism, to analyze ways of listening.)

In the Sacred Music? chapter, Gordon does make an interesting observation.

We do not listen to hymn-styled music in our leisure time. That is, traditional worship forms are not, in fact, our preferred musical style when we listen to music. Such traditional forms are not “our” music; they are the church’s music, and they antedate us by many generations. (76)

This is a valid point, at least as pertaining to the last two or three generations. There was a humility in those generations, that accepted what “the church” gave them, even though the music was not what they chose to listen to during off hours. If there is a sociology of the church, it may be that a secular shift from humble acceptance to arrogant demanding has occurred. The cause of this shift would be worth studying. Nevertheless, it is not clear so far how the content of the demand — contemporary music — dovetails with the spirit that would demand rather than submit. It is not clear that the shift in attitude is itself an argument against the kind of music now demanded, except in a question-begging sense: that is, why is it that the church used to present a certain kind of music? That nut still needs to be cracked.

What is needed is an agrarian phenomenology that looks at the totality of a folk’s life form. Luther struck the right tone, and spawned two centuries of marvelous hymn-writing in the Lutheran church. It would be insane for Germans to give up that legacy for any reason other than adopting the Regulative Principle. It is hymnody with lyrics that express evangelical piety with deep emotion, coupled with melody and harmony that expresses deep longing for the Eternal, just as one finds in all the best Germanic music of all ages, both secular and sacred. But would this hymnbook do in a fledgling congregation of a folk that lives a completely different life form, say, in the Congo? I think not. This music would be orthogonal to all their deepest feelings.

Does it follow that a missionary in the Congo should introduce bongo drums into their worship? I think not. The monotonous thump thump thump of the drum reflects a debasement that they should give up immediately. The rallying cry of the 60s, “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” was not just a manifesto of rebellion, but reflected deep insight. And, we may here adopt the insight falsely appropriated by Gordon with the guitar: this use of drums is unknown in high music.

When I have made this point to people, they immediately come back with, “what about the timpani?” But the timpani proves my point. First, timpanists do not think of their action as striking the drum, but rather lifting the sound out of it. Second, the timpani are tuned — they are a pitched instrument. Finally, even the timpani — like the cymbals — are only used for temporary special impressions, and accent.

Beaten, repetitive drums start to appear, say, in Ravel’s Bolero. However, note that even there, (1) the monotonous beat is subservient to the arc of the music itself, and (2) it is not dominant, but supported by the wind section. Moreover, it could plausibly be argued that Bolero is a signpost of “high” music’s move into decadence.

The best music, both “high” and “folkish” develops a strong rhythmic sense without the need for drums at all. Listen, for example, to Bach’s Dorian Toccata and Fugue, or Peter Paul and Mary’s Puff the Magic Dragon.

Thus, I think we have the start of an analysis by which an absolute prohibition of drums in worship could be developed, while it fails in the case of Gordon’s personal nemesis of the guitar.

In conclusion, an analysis of the content of appropriate church music that is not based on a principle like the Reformed Regulative Principle can only proceed on agrarian and folkish lines. On the other hand, a critique along agrarian and folkish lines could be fruitful. It will involve a combination of norms, folkish deep feelings, and frankly, the imposition by authority. Lacking such a basis in his worldview, Gordon’s attempt often comes across as merely arbitrary, even if it also offers a smattering of insights that could be appropriated in the right approach.

T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *