'Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns' is a short, clever and timely work addressing how contemporary influences have modified the standard regarding music used churches today as the church moves to embrace a spirit of modernity. I've been bothered by the contemporary movement's sway in the churchtoday and the utter mindless emotionalism most church music seems to have these days so I appreciated reading Dr. Gordon's thoughts and analysis. I believe he nails the issue on the head early on describing how previously hymns would be selected by a criteria of theologically orthodox and significant lyrics, thoughtful lyrics, and songs well-written in regards to melody, harmony and form (p.47). Unfortunately today, so many churches of the seeker-sensitive model, or church intended more for those who are "not taking it(religion) seriously" (p.155) and the "music-lite" invariably reflects a church that also practices "worship lite."
On p.130 Gordon sets out a thoughtful consideration of if a hymn would it still exist as Christian verse if it were not set to music. Personally, I can think of a number of theologically rich hymns such as "A Mighty Fortress" with powerful words that, isolated from their music would still have a very significant message of the glory and magnitude of God. Yet when I think of a Houston-area mega-church I visited recently I recall the lyrics to one song that repeated over and over and over again... "greater things have yet to come and greater things are still to be done in this city" that, if repeated as verse without music repeatedly would be just inane (and maddening).
Gordon digs in with an analysis of contemporary music and the dangers of mindless sentimentality, or emotion in music for emotion sake, which as he puts it, "reflects and endorses a trivial culture." From contemporaneity the after-effect is that anything not contemporary is rendered odd, quaint, antiquated or outdated, and we're left with trivialized, simplistic, sappy music reflecting the romanticism and primitivism of era's like the 60's, with guitar music led by "middle-aged former hippies unwilling to leave Woodstock." This later point might be something of a generalization (Gordon does do that through the book, and to be fair he sometimes does veer into odd tangents, such as the one on Gillette shavers and landfills(???) on p.107-108) but I do see his point about music trivialization (and I think I have listened to the music of a few of those same 'hippies' in a couple churches that I've been to in recent years.)
The biggest negative of this work, though, is I got to the end of the book, agreeing with most of T. Gordon's points, but I was left wanting a little more of a take-away, namely: if the church needs hymns, then what hymnals does the writer suggest? More specifically, say someone is in a contemporary church, and they're getting fed up with the maudlin sentimentalism of the music, and they want to be in a church with more richer, deeper music, but this is the only church that they have ever knows. Then what churches actually use hymnals, and how would this person find them other than just endlessly church-hopping? Any practical suggestions of where to go to even find that music if a church with contemporary music is all that you've ever known? Maybe even a hint or two could have helped, such as some direction to seek out something like a more reformed, confessionally-centered church congregation, etc. I think a little direction would have helped, even if in the form of some suggested denominations or churches in an appendix) Additionally, there was no real mention of WHAT hymnals would be considered better or worse than others. I think there was a passing reference to the Trinity hymnal, but what other hymnals are there, and how does a layman discern one from another? Again, some practical suggestions of hymnals, and pros and cons, would have been of great value. As it stands, there was only one appendix with a debatable "pop versus classical culture" chart that didn't help much. I would have liked to see a few more resources to help direct people in the right direction with music.
All the same this was an insightful read and worth checking out if you're hungry for something more substantial and edifying in church music. Hopefully in a future edition Dr. Gordon could include a few helpful appendixes.