Saturday, April 2, 2011

Gone With the Musical Wind

I am never up on ‘the latest’ books, but I recently ran across a gem of a book, published last (2010) year:

Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns:  How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal by T. David Gordon

The link in the title will take you to The Book Depository.  I have no interest in that company, but I did notice that this is the lowest price I could find for a new copy, and shipping is free.  (It is not extremely fast, but it is free, and my copy came in excellent condition.)

Gordon is a sharp cookie, so to speak.  He is, in essence, pleading with the church not to jettison mindlessly our long, rich tradition of church music in favor of what is mistakenly (as he points out) called ‘contemporary’ music.

Like Gordon, I have been disturbed by this for a long time.  I can still vividly remember, back in the 1990s, being called into a young (and I am sorry to say, somewhat stupid) minister’s office for a chat.  He had not told me what the chat was to be about, so it was a bit awkward from the beginning.  He eventually came around to the point, which was that he did not want our church to sing any more “old” songs.

I was confused, because the songs we were singing mostly were not all that old.  In the course of the discussion he came around to the point:  he wanted everything we sang to have ‘the sound.’  I had no clue what ‘the sound’ was, and he was not very helpful as I asked about it.  Finally, he came up with this definition:  “I want our music to sound like the latest ‘Maranatha’ CD.”  That is, he wanted it to “sound contemporary.”

This struck me as bordering on idiotic.  Why would any congregation want to limit singing to any one ‘sound’?  How could the best music be only ‘contemporary’ – whatever that might mean?

Those were my initial impressions, but they were unstudied.  So shortly after that I began a quest to know more about all this.  What I did not realize was that I was observing in microcosm something that was burning its way through the ‘church world’ – and causing a lot of destruction in its path.

As my study of this matter continued, I realized that those who had succumbed to this fad had little good reason for what they were doing.  It was mostly just a musical whim, or something they had seen somewhere else and assumed they should imitate.  (This reminded me of that famous parental interrogation:  If everyone else jumps off the bridge, will you jump off too?)

So I began to compile, write, and rewrite what has become a never-ending study of this whole matter.  My thesis is that, for all sorts of very flimsy reasons, the church has generally adopted a “beauty is only in the eye of the beholder” attitude (aesthetic relativism).  The more I studied, the more I realized that this approach flies in the face of the Christian faith in many ways which I point out in the study.

So when I recently came across this little book I found – to my astonishment – that this fellow T. David Gordon had come to many of the same conclusions I had, and for the same reasons.  This surprised me because he seems to be an extensively educated (in the theological field) person, while I am whatever it is that I am – an amateur who likes to kick ideas around my mind.

If you think church music should be ‘contemporary’ (again, whatever that means), or if you have just never seriously considered this matter, I urge you to read Gordon’s little book.  I read it with an eye to writing a review of it sometime.  I began to mark what I thought were key passages.  The only problem was that almost every page had marks!

The church has inherited a great treasure of music.  It is a collection that has been reviewed and pruned untold numbers of times by untold numbers of people, so that the collection approaches only the most valuable pieces.  For the most trivial of reasons, many want to cast this great collection aside in favor of a tiny, accidental collection that happens to be recent.  Before you decide to do that – or be a part of doing that – you should read Gordon’s little book.  It won’t take more that a couple of hours of your life, and they will be two hours well spent.

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