Interview with T. David Gordon
Grove City College
Thinking in Public
April 4, 2011
(This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated)
Mohler: This is “Thinking in Public”, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Back at the early part of the last century there was a panic about the fact that public school children could not read and could not write. It became very much a topic of cultural conversation in the 1950’s and the 1960’s and of course the question was asked proverbially by a title that became well known was this, why Johnny can’t do this, and why Johnny can’t do that. Along comes Professor T. David Gordon to ask why Johnny can’t preach and why Johnny can’t sing hymns. The titles alone mean this is a conversation we need to have.
Dr. T. David Gordon is Professor of Religion in Greek at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. He has taught there since 1999 teaching courses in religion, Greek humanities, and media ecology. Prior to that he taught New Testament at other institutions including Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. He has also served as a pastor including service at the Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashua, New Hampshire. He’s the author of several books including a duo of very important recent books I want you to know about entitled Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers and Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Re-wrote the Hymnal. Professor Gordon welcome to Thinking in Public.
Gordon: Thanks Dr. Mohler it’s great to be here.
Mohler: You know when I looked at these two books my first thought was someone desperately needed to write these and that someone turns out to be Professor T. David Gordon. What prompted you to write these books? I think it’s very interesting how you begin the book Why Johnny Can’t Preach about your urgency in writing that volume.
Gordon: Yeah, that one probably did have more existential urgency because the thoughts had been rattling around in my head for a number of years, but I was afraid that such a book might appear to be uncharitable. So I just didn’t write it but then when I had stage three cancer in 2004 with about a 25% survival rate I began to feel that it would be irresponsible to die without saying this. So my conscience actually sort of bothering me. And so on the day I had enough energy to do something, I wrote the book.
Mohler: Well, I’m very thankful that you did and also thankful the Lord preserved you for this conversation and for much fruitful ministry beyond the time of urgency when you wrote this book. But when you say you thought it might ruffle some feather I have to say I don’t know why except with phrases like this, you say, “let me attempt to establish my thesis, too many ordained people simply can’t preach” on the next page you say, “preaching today is ordinarily poor.” and then you mention that preaching today is in substantial disarray. You are ready to make an argument.
Gordon: Yeah, I suppose so. Yeah I think so.
Mohler: I look at that, and I realize that that’s a thesis you want to establish, and I like the way you introduce it you say, “I come to recognize that many, many individuals today have never been under a steady diet of competent preaching. As a consequence they are satisfied with what they hear because they have nothing better with which to compare it.” Why don’t you talk about that world of preaching for a moment. How did you come to make that diagnosis?
Gordon: Yeah the diagnosis took place over time. At first I thought I merely smelled a rat as it were, and I just trusted my olfactory judgment. I thought maybe I had just recently graduated from seminary and that sort of a thing so back in the early eighties I thought perhaps I was being hyper-critical. But then I ran into people who served on pulpit committees and who had hired men and having heard the men, I wasn’t too impressed with them as preachers. So I can remember asking people why did you hire this person? And twice within a single year of time, people who had served on those committees said, well I’ve served on pulpit committees for thirty years and we know from the offset that we’re not going to find anyone who can preach so we just hire men who have other abilities. And at that point I realized I wasn’t the only one who had that point of view. And so then I started trying to look for some objective criteria and that’s when I ran across Dabney’s book on sacred rhetoric, his thoughts on preaching. And he lists in that book seven cardinal requisites of a sermon. Not excellencies but requisites thing that every sermon has to have. And so I started evaluating sermons by Dabney’s seven criteria and found not only that many sermons didn’t have all of them but honestly some sermons didn’t have any of what he considered to be cardinal criteria.
Mohler: Yeah, one of those criterias is what we would call a point. And you tell the anecdote in this book about having spoken to someone well who did serve on one of these pulpit search committees and who gave you the report that they had given up looking for a pastor. He said this, “you know as a businessman I’ve been in rotary for almost thirty years, and every month we have a meeting and someone gives a talk of some sort. When I go home I can tell my wife what the talk was about and how the person made his point, but I can rarely do that with sermons.”
Gordon: Yes and you know the individual who said that, by the way he’s now passed away he’s gone on to be with the Lord, the person who said that Bob Ramsen was one of the kindest, most charitable, Christian people I have ever known. No one who knew him thought of him as a crank. And so for such a charitable person as he to make that statement was really stunning to me.
Mohler: Well, let’s talk about how this happened and this is where your field of media ecology really comes to have a very, very central importance. You suggest that there are some problems that are prior to the problem in preaching. And in answering the question why Johnny can’t preach you offer two very cogent reasons just off the bat. And they are that number one, Johnny can’t read and number two Johnny can’t write and, therefore, those things are sufficient to explain among other things why Johnny can’t preach.
Gordon: Yes, you’ll notice you know that I stole the title of this from the earlier two books Why Johnny Can’t Read and Why Johnny Can’t Write and so having stole part of their title I also did so because I thought that was part of the actual explanation.
Gordon: That we’ve moved to a point as a culture where we just don’t read and we don’t write as we once did.
Mohler: Well, let’s talk about that.
Gordon: And the thing is.
Mohler: Well, let’s talk about that for a moment let’s talk about why that’s so.
Gordon: Well I do teach media ecology and as a media ecologist I observe that before we had electronic technologies, we communicated by other means. And so what I did in college and through grad school is I wrote my parents a letter every week for seven years. And none of my students does that. So without any effort to become a better preacher just to stay in touch with my parents I had seven years of experience of composing every week. Thinking of what I wanted to say and in what order, and in what manner. And that was common until cell phones became common, AT&T was broken up and long distance was no longer expensive. So people now text, and tweet, and cell phone, and so forth but they rarely compose a thoughtful letter. They just don’t write.
Mohler: That’s interesting that you mention that because I have a treasure trove of letters and one of my most enjoyable areas of reading and required areas of research is in historical biographies and doing that kind of research where letters are absolutely indispensible. My good friend Dr. Mark Dever, a pastor in Washington, D.C., has been one of my closest friends for now going on thirty years. During the time he was studying, doing his graduate work in Great Britain and I was doing my graduate work here in the United States we shared what amount to boxes of letters, and I still have those. I look back at that and realize I don’t get letters like that anymore. I really don’t write letters quite like that anymore.
Gordon: Yeah, that doesn’t surprise me that it’s unusual. In fact you talk about your historical research many biographies in the 19th century as you well know were titled the Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney or life and letters. Nowadays you couldn’t write a biography if you depended upon people’s correspondence because so few people have it.
Mohler: Well, and it’s almost impossible to imagine writing anything that anyone would want to read on the life and text messages of any personage no matter how important or celebrated.
Gordon: That’s correct. Remember that the virtue if you will of electronic technology is speed—that’s their virtue. But the problem is the end of perpetuating speed as itself a virtue and of course a rapid response cannot by definition be a thoughtful response. And so as we communicate more frequently through these media what happens is we have more thoughtless communication and less thoughtful communication. But when you handwrite of course by contrast you have to think very carefully because there’s no delete key.
Mohler: Yeah, I still take my most important notes by hand. And I still write many of the most important things I write by hand with that kind of deliberate intent simply because I also like the intimacy of the physiciality of the paper and the writing instrument often write with a fountain pen just because I like the connectivity of it. Even the kinetic experience of it, because I find that I remember what I write with my hand in a way that I do not remember what I type with my fingers.
Gordon: That’s correct. And a neurologist would explain that in terms of the different portions of the brain that are used. The motor portions of the brain are now used when you’re writing that way. And so the recall is of course higher. Yeah and I’ve got my little Parker…fountain pen sitting here in front of me. I use it as well.
Mohler: Well I’m proud to hear it. When you do engage in that kind of thing you know let’s face it we recognize we are antiquarian. When I take out a pen you know no one expects you to even have a writing instrument anymore. You know when you go even to check something out and you have to sign a credit card slip they always give you a pen because no one expects you to have a pen. I don’t know what it would be like not to have a writing instrument right close at hand, and a pad, or something upon which to write it. But that’s a part of the media ecology. Let’s talk about that. Let’s define the term and talk about when it comes to reading and writing why our current media ecology is so slanted and stacked against that.
Gordon: Well, Neil Postman coined the term you know, he studied under Marshall McCluin and so he credits McCluin for sort of being the father of discipline but he coined the term “media ecology” because he argues that like a biological ecologist you’re studying environments. And whenever you introduce a new species into a physical environment you put let’s say a wolf, re-introduce it to the forest of North America, you don’t have the previous environment plus a wolf. The change is ecological. Once the wolf is there he’s the predator of some animals and he’s predated by others and so the consequence the whole forest is simply a different thing. It’s not the previous forest plus a wolf. And so also when culture introduces new media they are not the previous culture plus the new media they are a different culture all together. And the commercial forces have an enormous interest in preventing us from raising the question. Because if we raise the question, how are these media shaping us we might come to a negative conclusion in some regard and they would lose money.
Mohler: Well, when you start thinking about the child who now say is born in the year 2011 and comes to life as a part of the digital revolution such that he or she genuninely is a digital native in the way we now describe frankly teenagers and those in their early twenties but you can imagine that this child could pass through in the age of the laptop, and now the tablet, and the smart phone, and all the rest without ever learning to read or to write in terms of the classic expectations of reading and writing.
Gordon: In the last three years Dr. Mohler, several of my colleagues and I have noticed that if we give an essay portion of an examination some of our students cannot handle it because they literally don’t have the handwriting skills to write an answer. They simply cannot do it.
Mohler: Yeah they don’t have the experience.
Gordon: That’s right they simply, it used to be that we occasionally encounter someone with which we called poor penmanship but some of the students now have virtually no penmanship.
Mohler: Well, make a direct line from reading and writing to preaching. Let’s get to the bottom line of your book. Why Johnny Can’t Preach. How is it that these things add up to the contemporary crises in preaching.
Gordon: Well, after the first reading to preach well in any true Protestant sense the sermon must be expository. And when I say expository I’m not talking about a particular method of exposition. And I’m not saying you have to go verse by verse in your exposition or something like that. What I do mean is that you have to make a compelling case to your audience that the thrust of your message is derived from God’s word. That means you have to be able to read the word of God carefully and understand it’s meaning. And so in an era where we do less and less reading and where much of the reading we do is mere skimming for information we become people who only read superficially. We read to see the things we already know as it were but not to have a text reconstruct us. And so I mentioned especially the literary reading is way down. The reading of poetry is way down. It’s almost not done anymore. And of course reading poetry requires a very careful scrutiny of a text to get anything out of it. So in a culture where people read poetry it was an easy thing to transition to reading the holy scriptures carefully because they already knew how to read carefully. And so as readers we just are not careful readers. And so a sermon on God’s love from John 3:16 sounds like the same sermon that would come from Romans 5:8 because they both talk about God’s love. But each says a different thing about God’s love. And a careful reader sees that each of those texts does not merely affirm God’s love but says a particular thing about it. And so what we get is very generalized sermons that are very loosely and only generally connected to the text. And since preaching is compositional those who do not write are not very skilled composition. They don’t know how to write a unified discourse. They don’t know how to write an organized discourse. They don’t know how to make wise decisions about how the first point makes it easier to make the second and third point. And so as a consequence of not writing much and not writing carefully two essential skills of preaching are just not there for many people.
Mohler: One of the values of this conversation with Dr. Gordon is that it underlines the fact that preaching is in essence a literary activity. That is it has to do with words. It is not only verbal it is also structured. It requires a certain finesse of expression. It is deeply involved in the interpretation of the text. And in this case it is that text above every other text. The inspired and authoritative, completely trustworthy word of God which is at the very center of the Christian life and of course of Christian worship. The big issue here is how will God’s people hear God’s voice? It must be in the act of preaching through the act of preaching God’s word. And that requires, yes that’s right, that Johnny be able to read—read the text of the scripture first and foremost. Read it faithfully. Read it accurately. Read it well. And that Johnny be able also to write. Not just so that he can write out a sermon so that there would be a manuscript so that through the discipline of learning literary expression he can learn how to order his words so that it doesn’t sound like a sermon is just the latest from a twitter feed or a succession of text messages. It has to be better than that. Preaching requires more than that. The worship of God demands something far higher than that.
So even the secular world recognizes that Johnny can’t read and that Johnny can’t write. And then comes along Professor T. David Gordon to tell us that that explains why Johnny can’t preach. But in his newest book he argues that Johnny also can’t sing. His new book is Why Johnny Can’t Sing: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal. Professor Gordon speak to the media ecology issue when it comes to music because this adds a whole new dimension to our concern.
Gordon: Yeah what happens is our musical sensibilities are shaped by the culture that we are reared in. So in the same sense that had you and I been reared in in France we would be speaking French today. We wouldn’t have chosen as five year old young men to speak French verses English our culture would have just shaped us that way. Well, so also the music that we are prevailingly exposed to shapes our musical sensibility. Before you had electricity, before you had electronic ways of conveying music, all music was by definition live. People never had non-live music. And therefore for many people, most of the music that they were exposed to was music that they themselves produced. Unless you were very wealthy for instance you couldn’t go to a symphony every day of your life but you could sing around the farm and around the home. And so folk music was probably the predominant form of music that the entire human race was exposed to until roughly the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century. Since then the prevailing form of music people are exposed to is pop music. Music designed to be commercially successful. In my dad’s generation of course it would have been swing and big band. And then in the beginning of the sixties, my generation is was more rock kinds of pop. And so now almost everywhere we go, we run into background music. When you and I were young the only place that occurred was in elevators—we call it elevator music. But musak, the…, recognized if they could sell the idea of background music they could sell their music not only to elevators but to the place where you pump your gasoline, where you shop for groceries, where you shop for clothing. So now, almost everywhere we’re surrounded by the sound of pop music. So that for many people that’s just what music sounds like. So anything that isn’t guitar companies or have a drum just doesn’t sound like music to them.
Mohler: Or it communicates something that they don’t recognize. I love classical music. I don’t see that as necessarily a moral statement. I’d like to make a moral argument about it, but as someone who grew up in choirs, in choruses, trained in music, playing an instrument in the band and in the orchestra, well my musical sensitivities are drawn to classical music if nothing else because of the complexity of it and the wonder of it, and the tradition and civiliational value of it. But you really don’t play symphonic music or classical music, or baroque music as background to a factory. But you did play musak because musak became a way of regulating the way people work. I mean after all they were able to prove that you could get more efficient workers if you had this background music.
Gordon: Correct and musak proved that you will sell more jeans at Gap if they tailor their music to you then if you don’t. So they’ve been very effective. But note then what it tries to accomplish. It tries to accomplish a kind of a disinterested amusement. If the verb muse means to think carefully about or to notice amuse means not to really notice. And so they’re kind of also trying to cultivate the sensibility of a kind of a mindlessness, kind of a deliberate mindlessness because they want you to make impulse decisions as a shopper. They want to convey to you just go with the flow, don’t really notice anything. That is to say if you and I were very thoughtful about every purchase we made we probably wouldn’t purchase some of the things we do. And so they want to surround us with the kind of music that puts us in kind of a pleasant mind, a kind of a thoughtless carefree mood because that is more likely to cause us to purchase.
Mohler: Well, you know it also creates a certain ambiance, a certain environment, a meteor musical environment. Sometimes we’re in a place and my wife will hear certain music, and she’ll say I feel like I ought to be ordering from a menu because it sounds like the kind of jazz, acoustical jazz, that’s the background to so many rather upscale restaurants these days. And it seems to me that in many churches they simply have developed their own environmental music that’s now just kind of the thing you expect when you walk into church.
Gordon: That’s correct. That’s exactly right. And now the issue, the question for me is this, who should be the arbiters of what a culture regards as music? And I don’t think the answer is Madison Avenue. Especially when we say who should be the arbiters of the music that the church uses to obey the command to praise God? Madison Avenue should not answer that question. The best theologians and musicians in the church should answer that question. And in Martin Luther’s generation he was that both the musician and the theologian.
Mohler: Who required everyone of his theology graduates who would preach to be able to be a competent singer. He said he did not trust a theologian who could not sing.
Gordon: That is correct. And he required all the students in the school system, the young students, to study music.
Mohler: By the way that’s still true in a lot of Lutheran schools.
Gordon: And they learn to sing parts by they were in junior high school when they had an annual talent festival and so forth the students from the school always performed and they were able to sing all four parts.
Mohler: I want to separate a couple of questions because I know some people listening to our conversation right now are going to say what we have here are two people who are just establishing a certain style and taste as arbitrarily right and superior. I want to separate a bit the style issue here and even say the musical epic designation whether it be classical, contemporary, or anything else, and separate the question down to that of hymns. Because that is the title of your book Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns. Now in your book Why Johnny Can’t Preach you explain that it’s answerable by the prior questions why he can’t write and why he can’t read. What are the prior questions that we bring to the question why Johnny can’t sing hymns?
Gordon: I think what it is simply the ubiquity of pop music. The reason people can’t sing hymns is because they sound more than forty years old. And so they don’t sound like what most people regard to be music. And so they just can’t connect emotionally and psychologically to it. It leaves them, how did John Frame put it, it leaves them feeling cold. And so the problem is not so much that the particular forms of music that our culture primarily employs are not very good the style of question, the problem is that’s all we hear. And so as a consequence anything that is not recently written sounds hopelessly passé. Whereas the same Christian reads books that are hundreds of years old. They don’t mind reading let’s say Luther or Calvin or Wesley. They don’t mind that and they don’t mind architecture that’s hundreds of years old. If they go to Williamsburg, Virginia they love the subtle architecture of Christopher Ribb. They love it and enjoy it and the reason they appreciate art forms other than music that are old is because those other art forms are not ubiquitous. But pop music in our culture is ubiquitous. It’s all around us almost everywhere we go. And as a consequence, it shapes our sensibilities and causes us to think that only that kind of music is music. At least in the emotional sense and so people just connect.
Mohler: Well, and I think even speaking evangelistically or missionally the way that many Christians will want to speak today they’ll say you have to sing this kind of music, you have to sing only this kind of music, because this is the kind of music that the people you’re trying to reach with the gospel, the people you’re trying to bring into Christian worship by means of the gospel, this is the only music they know. This is the only musical language that they speak.
Gordon: Yeah, that is frequently said. And the proper response is if we were having a service to honor my late father. Let’s suppose it was Father’s Day and he were still living in Virginia and we were trying to determine what meal we should cook for him. We wouldn’t ask what other people in our culture are eating that day. We would say you know he loved the standing rib roast and so we’re going to have a standing rib roast. And so also when Christians worship God, the thing is how best to worship God. And when you ask that question it doesn’t matter what most people do in other circumstance the proper question is what’s the best way to do this thing in this peculiar circumstance.
Mohler: Yeah, I think that’s a very legitimate point to be made there, and I didn’t mean to cut you off there you had an and so let me let you finish that.
Gordon: Yeah, and so the and so is this, for them to truly, for a person to truly convert and become a part of the worshipping community of Christ he’s going to have to do a lot of learning curves. He’s going to have to learn to listen to a thirty minute sermon for instance which many people in our culture never listen to an oral address of thirty minutes. He’s going to have to learn all sorts of other things and he may also have to learn how to enjoy the great tradition of Christian hymnody. But it isn’t difficult. When we were five and six years old driving to the Chesapeake Bay on the weekends someone could start singing a hymn and we would just join right in. Children can learn it.
Mohler: Well, absolutely and one of the problems here is that we often package being evangelistic as meaning that we can only remain at the rudimentary state that a new convert would find him or herself. Rather than understand that discipleship requires growing deeper. In your book you make a very interesting point and by the way I will credit this saying that I heard this some years ago. Someone described one of the modern praises choruses as one word, two notes, three hours and there’s a certain element of truth in that although there is some marvelous new music that is being written, and I’m glad to know and to sing that as well. But you make the point that it would be considered odd to the point of extremity if in a local congregation they said let’s sing The Gloria Patrio, the Doxology over and over, and over, and over, and over again. That reminded me of something said by the Methodist theologian Jeffrey Wainwright at Duke when he defined a hymn as a doctrinal statement set to music. You know that is a key test to me. A great deal of what is sung in churches these days could not possibly be defined as a doctrinal statement set to music.
Gordon: That’s correct. And when I teach my course here on the on the psalms the last three weeks of the course we talk about liturgy. In the broad sense not technically Lutheran or Anglican liturgies and we talk about what can we learn about hymn writing from the psalms. And one of the first is this the psalms that existed for three to four thousand years without music. That is to say many of this experience as sheer biblical poetry. Most of us, we read it devotionally and in other ways or have them responsively read at church and for me the test is this if a hymn can survive without music, if the lyrics alone would survive without music it’s a good hymn. And if it won’t survive if no one would even bother with it, if it were set to music it’s not good enough. And if you think of it many of our hymns especially those of Cooper existed as Christian poetry before anyone ever put them to music.
Mohler: That’s more typical than atypical. It is more typical that the words long pre-existed the tune.
Gordon: Yes. It’s actually in most hymns the lyrics had a self standing existence before they were set to music and I mentioned some of the authors in the book somewhere that did that. It’s a virtual who’s who of English poetry when you go back and look at who wrote many of these hymns.
Mohler: You know, I think again some people listening to this conversation would say you know this sounds like two scolds, and yet, you know I’m driven by the fact that number one God’s people ought to be worshipping in a way that maximizes the glory of God in worship. And the Lord himself has given us the ability to sing and to understand meter and tune. And he has given us a Psalter which is the very standard for the way that we ought to be articulating his praise. And the second thing of my concern is that there are so many people who simply are missing out on all of this. I really feel almost heartbroken for generations of teenagers, children, young adults, who simply don’t know these hymns. And they don’t know what they don’t know.
Gordon: Yeah to me, to imagine going through this fallen world without the sustenance of many fine and great hymns is just I can hardly do it and it almost is heartbreaking to imagine that there are people who are going through this world without some of the really fine hymns. Many people testify that in some of the difficult moments of their lives what sustains them was the great courage begetting power of a well written hymn. And when our daughter for instance died of leukemia, the first daughter, for years my wife’s favorite hymn afterwards was Whatever My God Ordains Is Right. And it was such a valuable hymn to have already learned before that moment so that it was like an inflated life raft to carry us through a difficult moment. I would hold Marion in the morning in the hospital and sing to her. It’s still very important one day to hold that baby in my arms and sing on her behalf “hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes shine through the gloom and point me to the skies. Heaven’s morning breaks, earth vain shadows flee in life, in death oh Lord abide with me.” She was too young to pray her own prayers or sing her own hymn and so I had to sing that one for her. And there are people who will go through this world they will have a child die, and they will not have the strength and faith that we have because some great hymn writer gave us that gift.
Mohler: That is such a moving testimony, and I don’t think anyone can hear that without understanding the passion that led you to write this book. You know when you think about what a hymn represents also one of the great comforts to me is to know that I’m singing what Christians have sung not only for generations but for centuries. When you stand up and sing a mighty fortress is our God you’re singing a song that gave sustenance to the reformers in the 16th century. And we’re still singing today. You have to wonder how much of what is being written today and again I want to footnote that by saying there is some excellent music being written today, but what we’re talking about here is the environment of music in so many of our churches. The worship in so many of our churches that is the truncated, minimalist music, that avoids the very substance we’re talking about here.
Gordon: When Hebrews 12 says that we haven’t come to Mt. Zion in our Christian assemblies, you have not come to Mt. Zion, but you have come to. And then it lists all the things we’ve come to, three of them are references to other worshipping saints. The spirits of just men made perfect. Innumerable angels, in vestal gatherings. Those whose names are among the first born of the dead resurrected saints. And so it’s a proper Christian impulse to want to sing A Mighty Fortress with Friar Martin, to want to sing I Greet Thee Who My Sure Redeemer Art with John Calvin, to want to sing O Sacred Head Now Wounded with Bernard of Clairvaux of the 12th century. It’s proper to want that, and what I’m suggesting is that it’s improper deliberately to cut ourselves off from that great heritage.
Mohler: Absolutely. Let me ask you one other thing Professor Gordon. I was recently on your campus there at Grove City College to deliver some lectures, and I got to meet so many of your wonderful students. You’re with them. They’re in your classes. Do you have hope for a recovery of true preaching and of the church’s hymnody in this generation now rising?
Gordon: I have less hope for the first, more hope for the second. Many of my students who are reared in contemporary-only churches are almost angered when they attend a church that uses traditional hymns to discover that they’re eighteen, nineteen, or twenty before they learned about this. They feel that they’ve been robbed. And they don’t mind a blended service, they don’t mind a little of a contemporary, nor do I. But when they realize that they’ve been reared without any of these great hymns they feel cheated. And they ought to feel cheated. And if anything the movement now seemed to be swinging back a little bit. Mark Moore edited, interviewed me for CT recently, and he said that he thinks in the contemporary churches he goes to, he notices that once or twice a month they are singing a traditional hymn. And, I think that’s wonderful, they’re rediscovering the Catholic heritage of hymn singing, and I do think we may see people realizing that an exclusive diet of contemporary is unnecessary and unedifying. But as to preaching I think the sensibilities of our culture are such that we are not likely, immediately or quickly to see improvement there. The only optimism I have there is this: when I mentioned earlier that many people have never heard a steady of diet of good preaching because of the internet today, people can hear the good preacher, they can hear Mark Dever, they can hear Tim Keller, they can hear you, they can hear Lig Ducan, they can hear David Hall. There are good preachers out there, Alistair Begg and so forth. What happens if people listen to those people on a regular basis, they will realize that what they are getting in their local church is inadequate. And maybe that will at least provoke the people to say we expect better in the future. But if young men go to seminary having played video games and computer games, and watch television, and You Tube with most of their leisure time, and do not read literature, and do not read anything carefully, and do not compose. Seminary in three years cannot undo what’s missing. It just can’t.
Mohler: Well, I will only be able to say that I affirm that. There is much that we can do but we cannot bring an entire pre-education to bear on those who arrive on the seminary ready to preach. We just have to hope. And I do have some confidence I’ll share here with you Professor we do have to hope that the Holy Spirit of God will help to encourage and sustain, and indeed to prepare those who are committed to true biblical preaching to pick up what has been lost in the past and to gain it for the generations to come. Thank you so much for joining me for Thinking In Public.
Gordon: Great to be here. Great to be with you on your program and of course you know it was great to have you here on our campus.
Mohler: Well thank you so much look forward to the next time we get to share conversation.
Gordon: Yes I do to.
Mohler: I do find it fascinating that God made us as musical creatures. He loves music so much that he made his human creatures able to praise him by the use of this gift by not only the writing and composing of music but the ordering of thoughts, the addition of meter and rhythm and all the things that make for music and all of its glory. And he gave us the capacity to use this in order to glorify himself. And as Dr. Gordon indicated, when you start looking to the biblical teachings about heaven, it is extraordinary how much about heaven is about music. And evidently if we’re going to be concerned with music to the glory of God for eternity, if we’re going to be faithful in this life we better be concerned about how to glorify God with music in the living of these days. The question, why Johnny can’t sing hymns is thus an urgent question. Not just a question of some kind of intellectual or cultural interest, not just a question of some kind of doctrinal pre-occupation, but a question of genuine urgency. Not just for a church but also for parents who are going to be raising up the next generation of Johnnies who if things don’t change also can’t preach and won’t be able to sing hymns.
Given what we read about the church and the Christian life and scripture, given what we learn by observing church history, it’s hard to imagine that there could be any greater issues of our concern then that the word be rightly preached and that the worship of God be rightly structures and rightly conducted, and rightly directed. That we actually say what needs to be said in preaching and hear what we need to hear and that we articulate by the common confession of our congregational singing that which is most pleasing to God, that which draws out and affirms the deepest most precious biblical truths. That which in its glory and in its essence literally a doxology—that is a praise to the one, true, and living God.
Now in this conversation with Dr. Gordon so many things have come to light and certainly we need to have some kind of diagnosis and some kind of description of how we get to this point. How is it that we have arrived at the point here in the early years of the twenty-first century when we seem to no less in terms of how we worship, we have brought less to how we articulate the praise of God then more. We expect less out of preaching rather than more. You know this issue of media ecology is really important, and I think not only as church leaders think about this and preachers, and those who are leading worship, but also as parents and educators think about this, we need to realize that we are up against an enormous challenge with this media ecology. That phrase that Dr. Gordon and others have borrowed from Neil Postman is so very important for us because we are living in the midst of this media world. We are bombarded by the kinds of impulses, and signals, and habits of mind, and habits of ear, and habits of expression that come by means of the media that are rather constantly the ocean in which we swim. We look at that, and we recognize that yes, there is a missiological and evangelistic necessity to connect to that culture to use the mechanisms, the components, the styles, and the modes of that culture and to exploit those things for the glory of God by means of evangelism and cross cultural application and transmission of the gospel and all the rest. But there always has to be a different question asked once you are inside the context of the church, and that is how can we most gloriously, most faithfully, most substantially praise and honor God? That’s going to require all of us, not just some of us, that’s going to require all of us to learn things we otherwise would not learn in order to sing things we otherwise would not sing. In order to be able to hear, if that is our task or to preach, if that is our calling, a message that we otherwise wouldn’t know how to deliver and wouldn’t know how to hear. Now one of the most helpful aspects of all of this is to remember that there are some prior competencies that are necessary. One of the issues of the Christian life today is that we without apology have to be the people who still believe that reading and writing are important. After all, we’re talking about a Lord Jesus Christ who said that speaking of the Old Testament scriptures, these are they that testify of me. We cannot understand him without understanding the scriptures. And to hear the voice of God which is the most desperate need of Christ’s people, we’re going to hear it through the preaching of the word or we’re not going to hear it. And when it comes to right worship, it’s hard to imagine there could be anything more important and that’s going to require us to go back and learn even in the midst of this massively pervasive and even invasive media ecology. We’re going to have to learn some things that the world wouldn’t otherwise require us to learn. We’re going to have to learn to appreciate some things and to do some things. We’re going to have to learn some musical competencies the previous generations learned out of necessity. Maybe we also need to recognize there’s a necessity here as well because we do not want to raise excessive generations who also include those who cannot preach and those who cannot sing hymns.
I am very much indebted to the conversation with Professor Gordon. I believe you will be as well and commend his books Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns and Why Johnny Can’t Preach. I also want to suggest that you take this conversation to your dinner table and to your next meeting of your congregation where Christians gather. These ought to be among the things we’re talking about.
Thanks for listening to Thinking In Public. I want you to be aware of a special preview event at Southern Seminary designed for those who are considering seminary and just needing to know more. We hope you’ll visit our campus on April 28-29 for Southern Seminary preview days. For more information go to our website at sbts.edu or simply call us at 800.626.5525. Ask for the Admissions office, and they’ll be glad to give you full information about this event. It’s kind of an emersion in the life of the seminary that will give you a very hands on experience and a firsthand knowledge of what seminary is all about. I’ll meet you next time for Thinking In Public. Until then, keep thinking.