Posts Tagged 'Books'

Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns (Review)

Why Johnny Can't Sing HymnsT. David Gordon’s recent book Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal (190 pp., P&R, 2010) has created a bit of a stir within the Presbyterian and Reformed family of churches. While Gordon does not directly address the topic of psalm-singing, I think it is worthwhile to devote at least a little space here to a book by a respected author on an important subject.

Gordon’s areas of expertise include theology and media ecology. Music is not one of them, as he quickly admits (he can read music, but does not play an instrument). This both limits the extent to which he can discuss the music theory behind hymnody and allows him to approach the topic from a unique perspective.

To sum up the field of media ecology in one borrowed sentence, “we make tools, and tools make us” (10). From this angle Gordon digs behind the contemporary worship movement to expose the cultural assumptions of contemporaneity. Drawing from cultural analysts like Neil Postman and Ken Myers, Gordon characterizes the dominant ideology of the 21st century as one that disregards the past and trivializes the present. If this is so, he concludes, “the meta-message that contemporary music sends is this: Nothing is important; everything is just amusing or entertaining. This is hardly a Christian message” (72).

Throughout Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns Gordon employs a clear, readable style, comparable at points to Postman’s own renowned prose. After reading this book I felt as though the author were one of my own college professors. Unfortunately, Gordon also possesses the classic professor’s tendency to wander off into minimally relevant tangents (the low point, I think, is a footnote about the cost of his preferred razor blades). Between the occasional digressions and some significant overlap of material between chapters, I tend to think this volume could have been just as useful at two-thirds or even half as long.

While I found this book to be informative and enjoyable, I must also confess to some objections to Gordon’s line of reasoning. Where his cultural analysis is keen, his musical analysis is a little shaky—his final definition for “contemporary music” seems to be “music accompanied by a guitar”—and he often left me wondering how to make the final connection between the two subjects. Gordon also seems to directly correlate “triviality” and “contemporaneity” (a term he is reluctant to define), as though intelligent, articulate advocates of “contemporary Christian music” (CCM) either do not exist or are not to be taken seriously.

As you may have already guessed from the title of this blog, my biggest beef with Gordon’s case lies in his appeals to “traditional hymnody” (which, like the term “contemporary music,” he does not pause to explain). Gordon laments the fact that his students categorize the 1885 song “How Great Thou Art” as a “traditional” hymn—but his favorite example of hymnody, “Abide With Me,” is only a few decades older. He faults CCM proponents for knowing “nothing of Christian hymnody prior to the nineteenth or twentieth century” (41), but what other centuries are responsbile for the overwhelming proportion of the contents of any “traditional” hymnal?

It is clear that Gordon views the contemporary Christian music movement as a strange new blip on the church’s 2000-year-old radar. I would suggest that his “traditional” hymns are actually not that traditional either. Rather, I believe CCM is merely a small part of a much larger blip on the radar screen: the emergence of Western hymnody—a phenomenon that has crowded out the church’s (much more traditional) practice of psalm-singing, in some Reformed and Presbyterian denominations less than 100 years ago. I would love to read Gordon’s cultural analysis of how this worship shift occurred. Sadly, he barely mentions it.

In conclusion, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns will certainly appeal to readers who already favor hymns over CCM. Gordon hits all the high points of the contemporary Christian music debate (guitars, repetition, amplification, triviality), and he does so far more articulately than the average church member. The book nobly champions the cause of hymns, though it is probably unlikely to win converts from the contemporary camp. All in all, I appreciate Gordon’s fresh perspective on a divisive topic. But if pastors and musicians merely follow his advice without probing deeper, I am not sure the church will be that much better off.


150 Questions about the Psalter (Review)

150 Questions about the Psalter“God gave his church the musical gift of the Psalter,” writes Bradley Johnston at the beginning of his little book 150 Questions about the Psalter (107 pp., Crown & Covenant, 2015). Formatted as a psalm-singing catechism of sorts, Johnston’s book teaches readers to love the Book of Psalms as a gift from God and to learn to shape their devotions and worship by it.

After an opening section entitled “Introducing the Psalter,” the book proceeds through six other divisions: “Christ in the Psalter,” “The Arrangement of the Psalter,” “The Content of the Psalter,” “Meditating on the Psalter,” “Singing the Psalter,” and “The Majesty of the Psalter.” Each division answers a variety of questions about the psalms: What is a metrical psalter? Should we regard the Psalter as merely a hymnal for the Old Testament? How do we learn to see Jesus Christ in the Psalter? Why should we sing the Psalms?

While Johnston’s answers to these questions are overall quite simple and straightforward, 150 Questions also includes almost 100 endnotes with fuller explanations and references to other resources on psalm-singing. Interspersed throughout the text are selected stanzas from a modern metrical psalter, The Book of Psalms for Worship. Several appendices in the back of 150 Questions trace the life of David through the Psalter, the patterns of the imprecatory psalms, an index of psalm references in the New Testament, and much more. It’s a readable, satisfying, and even fun introduction to the riches God has given his Church in the Book of Psalms.

Realizing that its author belongs to a denomination that sings only psalms in corporate worship, I feared that 150 Questions would immediately estrange readers from other church traditions by pointedly condemning hymns and other extra-biblical songs. Refreshingly, my fears were unfounded. Johnston chooses to argue for psalms rather than against hymns, making this “psalter catechism” a helpful and attractive resource for readers from a wide variety of worship styles. At the same time, reading a book so saturated with the riches of the Psalter left me painfully aware of the deficiencies of much of the church’s other music—which is probably a good thing.

My only quibble with 150 Questions is that some parts of it are very formal in tone, reminiscent of the style of the Westminster Catechisms. While this allows Johnston to provide succinct, precise definitions for the attributes of the Psalter, I tend to think a warmer, slightly more conversational tone would help the book’s winsomeness, especially for newcomers to the practice of psalm-singing. Overall, this is a minor blemish and should not deter the serious reader.

If Christians are not careful, psalm-singing, like any other tradition, can quickly become a source of pride and even idol-worship. It’s possible to read 150 Questions as nothing more than a militant defense of one denomination’s historical distinctive. But that’s not the point. Read with a humble, biblically-informed perspective, Johnston’s little book will help believers in every walk of life love the Book of Psalms more.


(Per FCC rules, I need to note that I was sent a complimentary review copy of this book, and I was not required to write a positive review.)

The “Not Yet” of the Psalms

The concluding verses of Psalm 72, sung to the rousing African tune SIYAHAMBA, are a favorite doxology in the congregation I attend at college. This royal psalm describes the blessings all the nations will enjoy as a result of the Messiah’s kingship:

May he live, and gold from Sheba’s realm
Then be given as a gift to him.
May the people always pray for him,
May they bless his name throughout the day.
In all regions—and upon the hilltops—
O may there be abundant crops of grain!
Being fruitful—Lebanon with cedars—
O may the city thrive like grassy fields!

The Book of Psalms for Worship, selection 72E

As joyous as it is to sing about the bounteous results of Christ’s reign, Psalm 72 often leaves me confused. I understand that its original context is probably a prayer of David or Solomon for Solomon’s kingship, as evidenced by the inscription and v. 20. But many of the blessings invoked in Psalm 72 clearly transcend an individual or even a national focus: “May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth!” “May people be blessed in him, all nations call him blessed!” (vv. 8, 17 ESV). Such prayers seem to look forward to the coming of a Messiah whose worldwide reign will bring ultimate peace and prosperity. We Christians confess that the Messiah has come and has begun his reign—and yet the blessings of Psalm 72 seem to remain unfulfilled.

Will there come a day on this earth when all nations acknowledge Christ as King? Will we see a time when “the righteous flourish, and peace abound[s], till the moon be no more” (v. 7)? If so, why do the circumstances of the world seem to be growing worse rather than better?

Jesus on Every Page by David MurrayLately I’ve been reading David Murray’s recent book Jesus on Every Page: Ten Simple Ways to Seek and Find Christ in the Old Testament. His chapter on the Psalms and the Song of Solomon, entitled “Christ’s Poets,” held a groundbreaking insight for my understanding of such passages.

Dr. Murray asks some questions that cut to the heart of our understanding of the psalms: “[D]id the original composers and singers understand what we can with the benefit of New Testament hindsight? Did they see the Messiah in the Psalms to the extent that the New Testament writers did?” He answers that while Old Testament believers could not enjoy the “extraordinary light” we have been granted as a result of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, they did trust in a future Messiah, and they knew his message of salvation would be much clearer to future generations. Yes, Dr. Murray would say, Psalm 72 was written with the person and work of Jesus Christ as its preeminent focus.

But what Dr. Murray said next instantly clarified my confusion concerning Psalm 72:

In some ways, we are in a similar position to these first psalm singers when we think ahead to the second coming of Jesus. Many passages in the Old and New Testaments—including the Psalms—predict Jesus’ coming again in great glory to end this world and create a new environment for a renewed people. But while we get the overall outline of what lies ahead, only when these events unfold in detail will we fully understand these scriptures. In the meantime, we look ahead with optimistic faith and sing psalms such as Psalm 72 and 98 with the same inquiring faith that the Old Testament prophets also experienced with reference to the first coming of Jesus [I Peter 1:10-12].

In other words, we may not fully understand all the promises of Psalm 72 and other forward-looking scriptures. But that’s okay. Although Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection, and ascension perfectly fulfilled the messianic promises of the Old Testament, the final consummation of his kingdom according to the Bible’s prophecies is yet to come. The author of Hebrews explains this distinction wonderfully in reference to Psalm 8: “At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9).

So it’s okay for the promises of Psalm 72 to puzzle us. It’s all right to wonder how God will bring about the consummation of the Messiah’s kingdom. As humble, awed worshippers, we need not doubt; rather, we can look forward to the certain fulfillment of this and every other unclear passage. And when we sing, “May his name endure forevermore; may it grow as under shining sun,” we can do so not only in praise but also in anticipatory excitement. Nothing can stop the fact that Jesus is coming again!


–quotes from Jesus on Every Page are from pp. 190, 191

Works of Power and Grace: Keeping the Banner Aloft

The Christian Reformed ChurchA handful of Reformed churches make the difficult decision to break away from their parent denomination.  Troubled at the trends of increasing liberalism and waning orthodoxy among their fellow churches, they at length determine that their only option is to form a new body with the express purpose of remaining faithful to the Bible, the creeds, and the confessions.

In many ways it is an exciting time for this new little group.  They have the chance to root themselves firmly in the historic Reformed faith, to spread their branches into a functional and God-glorifying federation of churches, to bear the fruits of Biblical preaching, sacraments, and discipline, and to sow the seeds for a whole new generation of faithful Christians.

But this period in the churches’ life is also filled with immense struggles, possibly the greatest they will face for decades.  It is what some have aptly called “the crisis of youth.”  Although the churches are united in their desire to remain faithful to Biblical orthodoxy, they differ in their origins, their ethnicities, their traditions, and even their theology.  Individuals with identities emerge who, intentionally or unintentionally, lead their followers in slightly different directions.  Debates develop and factions form over various aspects of doctrine, be they trivial or essential.  Being composed entirely of human beings, they are all too prone to sin and stumble.  But, striving to seek God’s will and to remain faithful to his Word, do they still comprise his church?  Absolutely.

Dr. Henry Beets

Dr. Henry Beets

The scenario I’ve just related is, of course, an historical one.  You may already have in mind the founding of the United Reformed Churches in North America in the 1990s, and their life and growth over these past 17 years.  However, the above account comes not from the history of the URCNA, but from a mildewy old hardcover entitled The Christian Reformed Church by Dr. Henry Beets.  Those words represent Beets’s summarized account of the founding of the CRC in 1857.  It is to Chapter 6 of his insightful work that we turn today.

There, in 1857, stood the little group of churches—four of them, in fact, with only two ministers.  In a few years there were only two churches and one minister.  It would take many years for the Christian Reformed Church to build enough of a presence even to form a denomination proper.  Along the way there were a host of impeding factors, some of which Beets comments on here.

Enough Dutch stereotypes have permeated our communications here in the URCNA that we probably fail to realize the significant cultural and psychological differences even between Dutchmen in those early days.  Beets points to three ethnic sub-groups in the first CRC congregations: “Friesians, Saxons, and Franks—considerably differentiated physically and psychologically.  As a result, the people of the provinces of the Netherlands differ among themselves as to several characteristics.  People speak of the Friesians as predominantly intellectual, of the Groningen folk (of Saxon origin) as practical, sober-minded, realistic; of the Drenths as conservative; of the Hollanders on the whole as phlegmatic, and of the Zeelanders as inclined to mysticism.”

Also, due to the history of the Secession in the Netherlands, the religious training the CRC’s early ministers had received varied considerably.  Many early leaders looked to one or another individual as their guide and role model, to the united churches’ detriment.  Theological understanding differed with regard to baptism, the covenant of grace, and “second holidays” (celebrating for two days Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost).  Beets says, “Add to this divergent opinion about fire and life insurance, vaccination, and, last but not least, the difference between ‘passive’ and ‘active’ attitudes as to religious life.  Closely related to this last fact was the distinction between experiential or subjective, and more doctrinal and objective preaching.  It took time to create at least something of an amalgamation of the aforementioned elements, forbearance in love on these issues, and of the presentation of a united front to move forward.”

What about education?  “The older element as a rule, strangers to the struggle for the Christian school in Holland, were quite content with public education here, since it had, as in the Netherlands of yore, at least a Christian veneer.  The element coming in later years clamored for a positively Christian school.  Time and again this led to alienation of affections and to occasional clashes.”  Varying political affiliations and ongoing financial struggles were two more causes of lamentable disunity.  Considering all of these factors, Beets comments:

In the face of all these things, it is amazing to find the small group, whose fortunes we describe here, able to keep up its own church establishment, to keep the banner they had raised floating in the breeze, to march ahead in several respects, and try to realize the early ideals.

The survival of the church is amazing, yes—but the work of our Lord is amazing too.

Gysbert HaanBeets moves on to describe some of the early leaders of the CRC who, at the risk of alienating themselves from their family and fellow churchmen, stood for the truth and upheld the orthodox Reformed faith.  Among these was elder Gysbert Haan of Grand Rapids.  “Slender, muscular, clean shaven, his hair whitened already early in life, with piercing eyes, with strong convictions and iron will power, an able debater, in calmness possessing his soul.  He was well posted on questions of church government and theology and was a born leader.”  Haan fought vigilantly against the advances of Arminianism as set forth in Baxter’s Call, a work that was strongly defended by two church leaders who later confessed that they had not even thoroughly read the book.  Beets praises him with all his faults as “one of our men of the hour.  There would, humanly speaking, have been no Return in 1857 to the standpoint left in 1849, without Gysbert Haan.”  Other important leaders included elders H. Dam and Y. Ulberg of Vriesland, J. Spykerman and P. Vanden Bosch of Noordeloos, J. F. Van Anrooy and A. Krabshuis of Graafschap, and A. Nysse of Grand Haven.

The young Christian Reformed Church was troubled both by ridicule and condemnation from the outside (even being termed “the vilest district of modern Babylon” by Rev. Scholte of Pella), and disagreements and quarreling from within.

At one time, 1863, in a moment of crisis, there was talk of discontinuance as a separate group.  Merging with Old School Presbyterians was proposed by one leader.  Then Johannes Groen of Vriesland was stirred up and delivered a speech that saved the day.

Through it all, however, the CRC survived, and grew, and thrived, as Beets emphasizes, “to the praise of God alone…The banner was not only kept aloft, but carried forward.”  By 1880 the denomination comprised four classes (Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, and Hudson), with a total of 12,001 souls.  Yes, though with a scornful wonder men saw her sore oppressed, the Christian Reformed Church was richly blessed by God even in those first hard twenty years.

Now, what of this narrative’s application to us today in the United Reformed Churches in North America?  The parallels are striking.  Both of our federations began as a relatively small group of churches seeking to remain faithful to God’s Word and the Reformed faith.  The CRC was 13 years old in 1880, the end of the period Beets describes here; our federation is about 17.

Many of the specific challenges we face have remained the same as well.  Although the URCNA has not made multi-ethnicity a hobby horse, as it has recently become in the CRC, one can still occasionally see misunderstandings and disagreements between our churches of Dutch origin and more recent congregations, much as Beets describes.  There also seems to be a certain tension between some of the seminaries that supply our ministers.  Our pastors, elders, and congregations have slightly different theologies and varying opinions even on the non-essentials, and worship practices (with psalm-singing high on the list) differ from church to church.  Taken together, these obstacles can sometimes seem insurmountable.  I’ll admit, lately I’ve experienced moments of despair about our weak collection of churches as well.

But there is an extremely important lesson to be learned from the story of the Christian Reformed Church’s founding, and woe to us if we ever forget it: The Lord builds his Church—not men, not consistories, not synods, not seminaries.  In fact, the Lord builds his Church using even foolish, quarrelsome, and sinful humans like us, for the glory of his Name.  Yes, the CRC has wandered far from its original foundation, and (much as it pains me to say it) perhaps the URCNA will have followed the same path by its 150th birthday.  But that eventual possibility must never distract us our immediate mission: to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth, and remain steadfast on God’s Word.  And no matter what adversities come our way, we have these unshakable promises from the Lord to his Church:

Zion, on the holy hills,
God, thy Maker loves thee well;
All thy courts His presence fills,
He delights in thee to dwell.
Wondrous shall thy glory be,
City blest of God the Lord;
Nations shall be born in thee,
Unto life from death restored.

When the Lord the names shall write
Of thy sons, a countless throng,
God Most High will thee requite,
He Himself will make thee strong.
Then in song and joyful mirth
Shall thy ransomed sons agree,
Singing forth throughout the earth:
‘All my fountains are in thee.’


Works of Power and Grace: The Reformation of 1857

The Christian Reformed ChurchThe October 15, 2012, issue of The Standard Bearer, a magazine of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America, bore a surprising title: “The Reformation of 1857.”  Of course most Christians are aware of the Protestant Reformation whose beginning we commemorate as October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg.

There was indeed another reformation of sorts in 1857.  It transpired on a much smaller scale and in a much shorter timeframe.  But its key motivation was no different: the desire to return Christ’s church to a system of Biblical, confessional, God-glorifying worship.  And for many of us in the United Reformed Churches in North America, we owe the very existence of our congregations to it.

Henry Beets devotes the fifth chapter of his historical account, The Christian Reformed Church, to an explanation of this “Reformation of 1857.”  It’s a complicated story, and its ramifications have continued right up to the present day.  I’ll do my best to summarize Beets’s chapter here.

By the early 1800s, it is safe to say that the Dutch in the Netherlands were practically oblivious of the existence of their kinsmen who had settled in America in the preceding centuries.  Even the fact that Van Raalte and Brummelkamp’s letter to America was addressed “to the Believers in the United States” demonstrates their ignorance as to the existence or condition of the Reformed churches there.

By God’s providence, however, this letter made it into the hands of Rev. I. N. Wyckoff of Albany, New York, a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church (RCA), and he diligently spread the word about the Hollanders’ desire to immigrate and made preparations for their arrival.  It was he who fraternally sent on the immigrants to their new homes in Michigan and Iowa, as Beets related in his last chapter.

In June of 1849, Rev. Wyckoff (a fluent Dutch speaker) paid a visit to the settlement in Holland, Michigan, on behalf of the Board of Domestic Missions of the RCA.  The settlers there were certainly desirous to enter into ties of unity with the true Reformed church wherever it existed in the new continent, but they also expressed concerns about uniting with the Dutch Reformed Church (RCA).  Wyckoff himself recorded their reservations in his official report on the meeting:

At the classical meeting it was soon made known that the brethren were a little afraid of entering into ecclesiastical connection with us, although they believe in the union of brethren, and sigh for Christian sympathy and association.  They have so felt to the quick the galling chains of ecclesiastical domination, and have seen with sorrow how exact organization, according to human rules, leads to formality on the one hand, and to the oppression of tender conscience on the other, that they hardly know what to say.  I [Wyckoff] protested, of course, that it is furthest from our thought to bring them in bondage to men, or to exercise ecclesiastical tyranny over them.  And I stated that they would be perfectly free, at any time they found an ecclesiastical connection opposed to their religious prosperity and enjoyment, to bid us a fraternal adieu, and be by themselves again.

This qualification appeased the fears of the Michigan settlers, and they agreed to join the Dutch Reformed Church.  In 1850 the General Synod ratified their membership in the denomination as a distinct entity, the Classis of Holland, but—and this is where the misunderstanding began—the provision Rev. Wyckoff had promised to the colonists was apparently overlooked.

There was an ominous rumbling in this diplomatic fumble, but Classis Holland continued in the Dutch Reformed Church and attempted to learn more about the denomination it had just joined.

Soon, however, the rumbling began to grow louder.  An increasing number of settlers began to feel and express that they believed the decision to join the RCA had been a wrong one.  Why was this?  Beets explains (pay close attention!):

Charges were made, and to our mind substantiated, that the Reformed Church in the East was not displaying the ‘marks’ our fathers had attributed to the faithful Church.  These charges included specifically the neglect of preaching on such fundamental doctrines as election, and limited atonement; the practice of private baptisms and open communion; the toleration of Free Masons as members in good standing; the use of 800 hymns, crowding out the Psalter; neglect in Catechism preaching and teaching and family visiting, as required by the Church Order, was evident.

The dissenters presented their concerns by way of the proper avenues at consistorial and classical meetings, but for the most part, their arguments fell on deaf ears.  It would be but a small group that would withdraw from the Dutch Reformed Classis of Holland—a very small group.

Rev. K. Vanden Bosch

Rev. K. Vanden Bosch

On April 8, 1857, the Classis met in Zeeland, Michigan.  Only four consistories had sent in notices of withdrawal: the churches of Graafschap, Polkton, Noordeloos, and Grand Rapids.  And these four churches were served by only two pastors, the Revs. Koenraad Vanden Bosch and H. G. Klyn.  The seceding group held their first classical meeting shortly thereafter, “and ratified as their Standards, subject to the Word of God as supreme law, the Creed, Catechism and Canons of the Reformed Church of the Netherlands, its liturgy and Church Order.”  This was the official beginning of the group of churches that would come to be called the Christian Reformed Church.

Lest the founders of the CRC be condemned as divisive schismatics, Beets is careful to emphasize the purity of their motives.  In fact, their heartfelt desire was that their brothers and sisters in Classis Holland would share their convictions and reunite with them.  As the Graafschaap congregation expressed it, “Brethren, we rejoice that nearly the entire congregation again stands on the platform on which our fathers enjoyed so much joy.…O, we should rejoice still more if the King of the Church would persuade you that it is the duty of all.”

Although this is where Beets’s chapter ends, it ought to be noted that this confused union and division between the RCA and the CRC has complicated relations between the two denominations ever since.  Only recently have the RCA and CRC begun to seriously talk about reuniting, and this, I must conclude, is due more to the increasing liberalization of the CRC than to a desire to return to the orthodox Reformed faith on the part of the RCA.  It’s an intricate story, of which I’ve only barely scratched the surface.

Close parallels could also be drawn between the secession of 1857 and the secession of the 1990’s.  Like those four churches in Michigan, it was the desire of the founders of the URCNA to return to a confessional, Biblical, historic Reformed view of worship, doctrine, and life.  It is only with the profoundest sorrow that we can behold the liberalization of the broader church, as we say with the Graafschaap church of 1857, “[W]e rejoice that nearly the entire congregation again stands on the platform on which our fathers enjoyed so much joy.…O, we should rejoice still more if the King of the Church would persuade you that it is the duty of all.”


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