Saturday, April 02, 2011

Thoughts on Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns

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.


Anonymous said...

Hey! He was my Greek teacher in college. I didn't know he wrote a book!

Anonymous said...

And as far as my thoughts, if I recall Dr. Gordon's constant complaining about hymns when in college, I've always sensed that he was trying to justify his own dislike of modern music.

I only ever had him as a Greek prof, but my roommate had him for some sort of Christian though course. My roommate decided to write his term paper on whether or not all the Psalms had this deep theology that Gordon seemed to imply that hymns have, which he found they did not. There are a large number of Psalms that are essentially "I love you God" in their theology. His conclusion was that there is a time for both, and I'd have to agree. I don't recall what Gordon thought of his paper, though.

So I never liked his outspoken dislike of modern Christian music, but he was a great Greek teacher. On the other hand, like you, I think he does have a point that music can have good or bad quality to it.

Joshua W.D. Smith said...

"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?"

Just try putting any other aspect of Christian life in place of musical and then, mutatis mutandis, see whether it holds as a legitimate criticism:

"...if new Christians need to be schooled in a prayer is that the heart's response...?

"...if new Christians need to be schooled in an ethical is that the heart's response...?"

"...if new Christians need to be schooled in a linguistic is that the heart's response?"

Becoming a Christian means learning a lot of things that might seem alien, because we used to be aliens and strangers to God. Music and worship are certainly a part of that.

Joshua W.D. Smith said...

And "hymns" is just too broad. There are some traditional hymns that are just as poor in their theology ("you ask me how I know he lives/he lives within my heart") and anemic in the music as any pop-influenced praise band stuff. Leonard Payton's work, and Lee Irons' article on "New Covenant Hymnody" need to be taken into account.

Also, though, there is a diversity of gift in the body, and that includes the pitch of the voice. Most praise songs are too high for me to sing comfortably: either I concetrate on not hurting my throat, or I just don't sing. Now, the melody lines of hymns are often high as well, but they usually have other parts, so there is something for me to sing that fits the range of voice I've been given. Thus, singing in parts is a) helpful to the diversity of physical gifts and b) is actually more Trinitarian--unity in diversity--than mere melody singing.