Recently I finished reading a book called, ‘Why Johnny can’t sing hymns.’ It was a pretty darn good read. While I had to make my way past all the overt criticisms of a music form that I actually quite enjoy (that is, contemporary worship music) the author, T. David Gordon (no relation) had some compelling things to say.
By trade, Gordon is a media ecologist, which I confess is a profession I had not heard of until he explained it. He studies the way we create media and then how that media goes on to shape and create us. He has an acute understanding of that thing called, ‘pop culture’ which he describes as being, ‘trivial and disposable.’ Initially I was offended. Truth be told I was offended throughout the book. Gordon seems to have a massive chip on his shoulder about the decline of hymn singing that comes through (completely unlike like some other Gordon we know). Anyway, he still has some insightful things to say.
He writes that pop music was a largely commercial creation, invented to fill out the programming of the then newly created commercial radio stations of the 1920’s and 30’s. It was more overtly about entertainment than any form of music had been before. Its role was to keep people listening so they would hear the adverts in between the songs. These songs had a particularly high turn over, as they had to keep the listeners interested. Hence why this music, in Gordon’s terminology, can be described as disposable.
Pop music has gone on to shape our understanding of music so fully, that other styles of music (like hymns, classical music, jazz etc) don’t really sound like music to the pop-cultured ear. His criticism is whether this is a worthy form of music to convey the praises of God’s people. While hymns came to be revered because of their heritage, worship songs are now regularly cast aside based purely on judgements like, ‘its getting a bit dated now isn’t it.’ I have even led worship at a church once where the senior pastor informed me, ‘We don’t sing songs any older than 2 years.’ Contemporary-ness seems to have become the new gold standard. If its new its awesome, if its old, bin it. Gordon says we are the first generation to singularly prefer the new and glamorous over the tried and tested. His most telling point is when he names a fallacy that I myself have repeated. I have believed that ‘hymns were the pop music of my grandparents day.’ But they weren’t. Glen Miller and the Big Band style was the pop music of my grandparents days. And yet they didn’t make their sacred music sound identical to their pop music. Only we have done that. Gulp.
And we seem to intuitively know this. Musicians and bands pump out music, often being drawn into creating volume rather than quality. We accept 12 tracks albums that may only have a couple of great songs on them. And we don’t listen to the radio expecting to hear a song from an album 10 years old. Its always the newest, freshest, flashest songs that we hear. Music has become like a paper cup. Very useful in the first instance, then replaceable.
So should worship music, like the rest of pop music, be disposable? Does it do justice to a God who is both ageless, timeless, but whose mercies are ‘new every morning’?
Gordon reckons we need a style of music for worship that is distinctive from the musical language of ‘selling and entertaining’ (which is what pop music was invented for, and you’d be a mug to say it hasn’t impacted the way we engage with church – as consumers). He points to hymns as the answer. This Gordon isn’t so sure, but he’s deeply troubled by it all.
– Malcolm Gordon