Recently I’ve been reading this book, by T.David Gordon. I find it to be thoughtful, provocative, and engaging. In his introduction Gordon helpfully points out that while his intention is to be descriptive, i.e. an explanation of why contemporary American churchgoers do not sing hymns, and find it difficult to do so, his argument to why that is so inevitably involves the superiority of traditional hymnody, and so cannot but come across as prescriptive.
Some of the features of Gordon’s argument are keen insights. He writes of how we have not chose to listen and sing pop music (p15), but rather the ubiquity of pop music means it’s the only music we think of as music. He critiques the values of our contemporary society as amusement, triviality, and contemporaneity as an aesthetic value (p45). He also argues that Christian theology gives us a ground for an aesthetic absolutism, not an aesthetic relativism (p54).
And yet, there are a number of features of Gordon’s argument that I do not find convincing. For example, he argues that comparisons to the translation of the scriptures into the vernacular are not a valid analogy for the music question. And yet, he often speaks of how music that we don’t think of as music (i.e. classical music for most of us), may as well sound oriental (as oriental music sounds foreign to most western ears, trained or not). But I presume Gordon would not think oriental traditions of church should adopt western hymnody? That is, I think Gordon is overplaying the synthesis of traditional Euro-centric hymnic traditions with Christian aesthetic absolutism.
Furthermore, Gordon argues that the need for broad cultural appeal is misguided, and uses Jesus’ discourse about the narrow way leading to eternal life as some kind of scriptural ground for this (Mt 7:13-14). Yet, I would think that Jesus’ words on this matter point to the narrowness of Christ’s exclusivity, and the righteousness that comes only through faith in him. It is not an elitism or narrowness about cultural norms of church life.
In utilising Ken Myer’s tripartite division of music traditions (classical/high, folk, and pop/mass), Gordon finds pop lacking in virtually every category. He does not consider accessible to be a virtue. And yet, if new Christians need to be schooled in a musical tradition that will probably always feel alien, how is that the heart’s response of worship in song? More to the point, since Myer’s schema basically has the same values for classical music and folk music, except that folk music is more accessible, is it not folk music that has the best ‘pitch’ to be the tradition of music the church should pursue.
Indeed, one of the sadnesses of western culture is the decline in true folk music traditions. Folk for many has become a ‘genre’ of pop, a section of the rapidly-disappearing CD stores. Personally I find my truest experience of folk music in learning and listening to the songs of my ancestor’s homeland, Gaelic songs from Scotland. Since few of us have a background in singing songs of everyday life and singing communally, communal singing in church is becoming virtually our only communal singing context (barring karaoke).
All the questions that Gordon finds in traditional hymnbooks, about the theological significance and orthodoxy of lyrics, their poetic value, the fitness of their music, are valuable. I also concur that we should resist aesthetic relativism, and seek to develop a truly robust Christian aesthetic philosophy. Yet there is a proper cultural relativism, that is descriptive, biblical, and has aesthetic implications.
Ultimately I am not convinced that singing hymns alone will save us from contemporary society and the reign of the banal. Rather, we risk raising barriers to people’s entry into worshipping communities, barriers that are not gospel ones, and may in fact prevent people from living lives of faith, or at the least force people to feel like their Christian life is lived out in a stranger’s language.
I’d love some thoughts on this topic, so feel free to comment.