With a tip of the hat to Stephen McDonald for the reference here’s some material quoted from Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns, a new book by T. David Gordon (whose last book was entitled ‘Why Johnny Can’t Preach).
…I will suggest that traditional and contemporary, in the present discussion, have nothing to do with dates, history, or chronology. The terms are employed idiomatically, to refer to Christian hymns that have different musical properties.
Further, and the reason I mention the matter here, we face the challenging circumstance that many voices in the discussion know nothing of Christian hymnody prior to the nineteenth or twentieth century (which is precisely the moment when some of us think it began a downward spiral). They often equate traditional with organ-accompanied hymns, for instance, even though organs were uncommon in the Protestant tradition (both because of expense and because of musical and theological considerations) until the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Thus, a young person reared in anything like a typical evangelical church knows only two things: nineteenth-century, sentimentalist revivalist hymns, and contemporary praise choruses; and they think the argument against the latter is an argument for the former.
What I am looking for is an argument that actually addresses the crux of the decision that many churches have now made: that the criterion of contemporaneity trumps all the criteria of all the hymnal-revision committees that ever labored. I put it that way because, with very few exceptions, the contemporary praise choruses that are actually selected would not ordinarily satisfy the criteria that previous hymns had to meet to get into the hymnals. These included, but were not limited to, items such as the following:
- theologically orthodox lyrics
- theologically significant lyrics
- literarily apt and thoughtful lyrics
- lyrics and music appropriate to a meeting between God and His visible people
- well written music with regard to melody, harmony, rhythm and form
- musical setting appropriate to the lyrical content
By these criteria, only the most artistically gifted (or arrogant) of generations could possibly imagine that it could, in a single generation, be expected to produce a body of hymns that surpassed all previous hymns and rendered them obsolete.
So the question remains: Why does contemporaneity deserve to be included as a criterion at all, much less as a criterion more important than all of these? Why are there not signs outside churches that read: “Theologically Significant Worship,” or “Worship Appropriate to a Meeting between God and His Assembled People,” or “Worship That Is Literarily Apt and Thoughtful”? Why do the signs say “Contemporary Worship,” as though that criterion were itself worthy of promoting?
Read the full excerpt from Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns at Monergism.
Following this through, this is not about old music versus new music.
The book examines the obsession of the modern church with being contemporary, that is a mirror of the common culture in which it finds itself, and the danger of setting itself adrift from centuries of continuity and biblical practice as it seeks to embrace the world.