When I first saw J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis atop The New York Times bestseller list this summer, I was certain my eyes were deceiving me. Surely this was one of those books, I reasoned, that furthers the stereotype that citizens of Appalachia are—to borrow the author’s language—toothless, inbred morons.
Like a typical hillbilly, I’m wary of outsiders who dismiss my home region as ignorant, racist, and hopelessly trapped in an antebellum time warp. I grew up in the hills and hollows (“hollers”) of northeast Georgia, in a small town where God and country—for better or worse—is synonymous with socio-political conservatism.
My kinfolk are plainspoken people who work on construction sites and farms. They butcher meat in grocery stores, repair electrical lines after major storms, teach in local schools, and care for the lawns of “outsiders” with expensive homes. They listen to George Jones and shop at Walmart.
After NAFTA passed in 1993, many lost their jobs, and my family’s business was hit hard by the Great Recession in 2008. My people, like Vance’s, are redneck, blue-collar, white middle class—a significant religious and voting block in America.
Not the Beverly Hillbillies
It took less than two pages to dispel my concerns about sterotypes. Vance’s elegy (a poem of lament) examines our deeply divided country through the lens of his experience as an Appalachian man. “America has a problem,” he writes. “My primary aim is to tell a true story about what that problem feels like when you were born with it hanging around your neck.” I was rapt as Vance spun his hardscrabble personal narrative—from life in the mountains of southeast Kentucky to the Rust Belt of Middletown, Ohio, where his family moved to work in an industry that eventually left town, leaving joblessness and misery in its wake.
Like many from broken hill families, Vance was largely raised by his Mamaw and Papaw. He spent precious little time with his birth father, and as a child toggled back and forth between his grandparents and his mother and her various live-in boyfriends/short-term husbands.
Mamaw emerges as the central character. Like so many grandparents of her generation, Mamaw was the glue that held the family together. I know Mamaw well, as I have one or two rawhide women in my family. I also know Mamaw’s clan well—the battling Blantons whom Vance cherishes. There are some Robinsons down in Georgia who would happily hunt, fish, and maybe even brawl with them, especially if you violate the unwritten code of the hills.
As hillbillies, Vance and I have much in common. Our families are working class—my father was a building contractor, my mother a homemaker—and our grandparents were part of a mass migration from Appalachia to southern Ohio for industrial labor during the Great Depression—his to Middletown, mine to Dayton and Akron.
Ultimately, both of us left our roots as adults, taking advanced degrees—his from Yale, mine from Southern Seminary—because God put someone into our paths who encouraged hard work, critical thinking, and reading good books. But though you can take the boy out of the country, you can never completely take the country out of the boy.
Hillbilly Elegy is far more than oral history; it’s a crucial examination of two beleaguered demographics: Appalachia and the Rust Belt. The book demands to be read deliberately and reflected on carefully.
As a fellow hillbilly, Vance has left me with much to chew on as I reflect on both our national circumstances and my own background. Here are three initial takeaways.
1. The two gods of Mamaw’s religion have spawned Donald Trump’s rise among evangelicals.
Others have written ably on working class angst as a central factor in America’s unconscionable political milieu, which Hillbilly Elegy jarringly illustrates, but I’m more concerned with the church. For many younger evangelicals, the popularity of Donald Trump among older Christians defies both logic and Scripture. His scandalous words, multiple marriages, lewd objectifying of women, fixation on money, and bullying demeanor raise serious questions concerning his fitness for the nation’s highest office. Yet numerous evangelical leaders continue to support him—no matter how many egregious sins bubble up into the news cyle. The piety of 21st–century evangelicalism feels a lot like medieval Roman Catholicism, an era in which the church desperately needed reformation. I am not speaking so much about whom one will vote for in the upcoming election—there are good Christians on different sides of this issue, and I encourage fellow believers to avoid judging each other—as I am church leaders who uncritically support certain candidates.
I believe Vance’s experience sheds some light on this problem. Mamaw spoke often about Christian heritage, Christian duty, God’s plan, God-given talent—like many evangelicals—while in the next breath dropping f-bombs with the fury of a Gatling gun. This is the nominal evangelicalism many of us in the Deep South experienced as teens—that of True Love Waits and the search for backward messages on Def Leppard albums.
Vance says Mamaw’s religion included two gods—Jesus and country. But it’s the Jesus of privatism more than the Jesus of Scripture. It’s the Jesus of Stephen Nichols’s Jesus Made In America—a sentimentalized personal savior, not the head of the church (an institution largely irrelevant in much of Appalachia). It’s the Jesus of country music, the savior of Gene Veith’s Honky-Tonk Gospel—a moralistic therapeutic messiah waiting tearfully at the anxious bench and haunting the sawdust trail. It’s a Jesus long on latitudinarian grace, short on heart transformation. It’s a Jesus whose message preaches on the campaign trail.
2. It’s impossible to overestimate the stabilizing power of an intact family.
This is perhaps where my Appalachian trail deviates most sharply from Vance’s. By God’s grace I was raised by loving parents whose marriage was built on their commitment to Christ and the local church. Much of my mostly stable adult life stems from growing up in a drama-free family with parents committed to each other, their three sons, and their church.
Many who grow up in Appalachia eventually fall prey to a paralyzing despair, paying a stiff price for the sins of their fathers, who, in the words of a million country-western songs, loved and left. Vance did not, thanks in large part to his grandparents.
To say Vance overcame staggering odds to graduate from Yale is an understatement. He wrote Hillbilly Elegy because he’s the exception. Poverty, violence (“being a hillbilly meant sometimes not knowing the difference between love and war”), and upheaval were all around him, a part of being born with America’s problem hanging around your neck.
Vance tells how the dysfunctional homes around him bred despair, which in turn led many friends into a vicious cycle of substance abuse and volcanic relationships:
For many kids, the first impulse is escape, but people who lurch toward the exit rarely choose the right door. . . . Chaos begets chaos. Instability begets instability. Welcome to family life for the American hillbilly.
Yes, for the American hillbilly and for every other group where fathers are absent and mothers are left to raise the kids alone. I witnessed this reality daily in rural Georgia, and it has adversely affected my extended family.
Where a father and mother remain together in a committed marriage, other healthy relationships tend to germinate. Vance’s immediate family was explosive, but the love of his grandparents turned out to be a motivating force that helped him rise above his circumstances.
The dissolution of the American family, as Hillbilly Elegy reveals, has reaped a whirlwind of despair. This is evident in a generation of young men for whom personal responsibility and working for a living are foreign notions. Vance tells of one acquaintance who quit his job because he no longer wanted to get up early, then went on Facebook and blamed his plight on Obama’s economy. As Vance puts it, this is the fruit of rotten choices, choices modeled by other family members.
3. Where the gospel is absent and the church weak, transformation is impossible.
Vance admits government can’t fix the problems of the working class. He’s correct—the real problem reaches far deeper than money or social inferiority. On one of the book’s final pages, Vance—like the scribe of whom Jesus said “you are not far from the kingdom from God” (Mark 12:34)—strikes painfully close to the solution with a penetrating question: “Are we tough enough to build a church that forces kids like me to engage the world rather than withdraw from it?”
Only the gospel possesses this power.
Whether you come from hillbilly stock like Vance and me or your family tree is decorated with scholarly leaves, our fundamental problem remains rooted in Genesis 3, and the only real cure is found in Romans 3. Vance sees the true carnage around him:
The fallen world described by the Christian religion matched the world I saw around me: one where a happy car ride could quickly turn to misery, one where individual misconduct rippled across a family’s and a community’s life. When I asked Mamaw if God loved us, I asked her to reassure me that this religion of ours could still make sense of the world we lived in. I needed the reassurance of some deeper justice, some cadence or rhythm that lurked beneath the heartache and chaos.
Hillbilly Elegy exposes the desperate need for strong local churches. Vance’s biological father became involved in a Bible-preaching church, which created stability not found in other parts of the family:
Regular church attendees commit fewer crimes, live longer, make more money, drop out of high school less frequently, and finish college more frequently than those who don’t attend church.
Vance correctly characterized the Christianity of Appalachia as “deeply religious, but without any attachment to a real church community.” This is no small problem.
Toward the conclusion, he ponders “whether people like us can ever truly change.” Human governments, no matter how limited and compassionate, will fail as a means of salvation—as myriad nations lining the trash bin of history bear witness. Vance says he’s been led to reconsider the Christian faith he followed in his youth but discarded as an adult; I pray he continues to plow that furrow. Ultimately, the old rugged cross is the only place where genuine change can occur and lasting joy can be found.
How Should Churches Respond?
As church leaders, there are at least four ways we can respond to the disaster Vance describes.
- Preach the Jesus of Scripture. Only this Jesus has the power to transform hearts, rebuild families, and renew cultures. A God-and-country Jesus cannot do helpless sinners good.
- Foster strong, Christ-centered families. Encourage fathers and mothers as the primary spiritual caregivers of their children. Encourage single mothers and fathers, too, in this vital calling.
- Encourage robust ecclesiology. Vance rightly detects the odd dichotomy of a people who hold affinity for Jesus, but none for his church. Personal transformation is a community project, so we need each other. We need churches that are serious about being the church.
- Resist the unbiblical fallacy of a homogenous church. Every congregation has hillbillies. Every family is dysfunctional at some level. There are countless single moms and broken families in our midst. They may not hail from Appalachia, but their backgrounds are complex, their brokenness and sense of disenfranchisement real. We have a gospel that is mighty to transform. Let’s proclaim it faithfully.
To put it mildly, Hillbilly Elegy is raw, bare-knuckled, and (reader be warned) brims with R-rated language, but it could hardly be otherwise. History is raw, bare-knuckled, and filled with R-rated things, perhaps never more so than in our personal histories. Vance has written a refreshing and brutally honest memoir, one that explains much about a divided and despairing American culture, and exposes in a fresh way our deepest need—internal transformation by the power of the gospel.
Hillbilly Elegy is a riveting, beautifully written parable of truth and grace—truth in exposing the seldom-seen, alarmingly desperate lives of millions in our country; grace in showing that God isn’t limited by our circumstances, and he draws straight lines with crooked sticks.