A review of “Hillbilly Elegy” by a Christian 2 and a half years late…

  ***Upon news of this book becoming a movie soon I’d like to re-visit the book from my Christian perspective.

I am a 27 year-old pastor in a wealthy Cleveland suburb on the Eastside. I am “from” Miamisburg, Ohio which is located about 15 miles from the Middletown of J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy.” On page 226 of Vance’s book he chronicles ACEs, “adverse childhood experiences.” As I was reading this section I felt an overwhelming comradery with J.D. as if we are best friends who speak the exact same language, because like J.D., I too have experienced (to a much lesser extent) some ACEs in my own life. When reading J.D.’s book, I just couldn’t help but to deeply reflect upon some of the hardships of my own childhood with my now adult and Christian perspective.

You see, this is what “Hillbilly Elegy” does to its readers-it causes us to think deeply about our life experience and to sort through the baggage. In the remainder of this post I will run through the thoughts I had when reading through the book and explain why I think Vance has written an important book for many reasons. I will be mostly kind to his writing since I feel as if he and I are friends even though we have never met; however, I do have some fairly significant critiques I will make along the way…

I’ve read a few different reviews of “Hillbilly Elegy” in which each writer began by proving they in fact are hillbillies just like J.D. Vance and his family. I don’t really know if I would be or should be considered a hillbilly or not, but what I do know is for people like me that identification is quite complicated. I’m Scots-Irish, my family settled in Appalachia (Eastern Kentucky on my Mom’s side; Southern Pennsylvania and Ohio on my Dad’s side), and both sides of my family all ended up in Dayton, Ohio and its surrounding areas, including J.D. Vance’s hometown. Why did they all end up there? Because that’s where the jobs were! When my family settled in the Dayton area they were escaping the tough lives of Appalachia and replacing them with the decent lower-middle class situation of being a working man or woman for the Union ran factories such as GM, Appleton, or AK Steel. The problem is that those jobs did not last for my generation. The days of buying a house for cheap in Dayton, working a hard job that pays well for 40 years, and then selling your house for much more than you originally paid only to retire on the beach in Florida-those days seem to be gone! The Dayton I grew up in was one I always knew I wanted to leave, because I always knew the world was a much bigger place, and there were more opportunities outside my hometown than there were inside of it. I’m sure it’s not hard for you to see why I said earlier that J.D. feels like a friend of mine, because we share very similar hillbilly roots whether either of us are actually hillbillies or not.

I will begin exploring “Hillbilly Elegy (HE)” where Vance concludes, “I believe we hillbillies are the toughest (expletive) people on this earth. We take an electric saw to the hide of those who insult our mother…” I have a scar on my middle fingers’ knuckle that no one really ever notices. How did it get there? A kid with braces called my Mom a name I didn’t like her being called when I was riding on the school bus, so I punched him in his mouth. The irony is that I’m the one who ended up with the scar because my knuckle got caught in his braces. “We make young men consume cotton undergarments to protect a sister’s honor.” Growing up my sister and I were brutal in how we spoke to one another. One time a neighbor kid called my sister the exact same thing he had heard me call her earlier that day. I beat the kid so badly his Mom called my Mom to tell her she was going to call the cops (I’m not proud of this BTW and I was not yet a Christian-I must have been about 13 or so). “But are we tough enough to do what needs to be done to help a kid like Brian?” Brian is a kid Vance talks about who had lost his parents, and who was hungry living in Kentucky. Vance identifies a key issue in our country with this question and here is the issue restated:  Many working class white people give lip service to helping a kid like Brian, but we aren’t willing to change Brian’s environment to enable kids like him to have a better future. Our spoken values say “we care,” but our actual actions shout otherwise.

This leads to another question-“Are we tough enough to build a church that forces kids like me to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it?” I am an evangelical pastor myself, and I find it ironic that an outsider like Vance can diagnose one of the biggest issues in fundamentalist and post-fundamentalist Appalachian churches better than most evangelicals can. Russell Moore wrote a book called “Onward” just a few years ago. In the book he discusses this very question Vance poses, and how have hillbilly church leaders responded? By attempting to silence him, threaten to fire him, and ask him for his resignation. “Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children?” In my experience the answer is “NO.” Why? Because we can’t admit such a grave sin if we can’t first admit we are sinners. We can’t confess to our children if we haven’t first confessed to the Lord. We can’t ask for forgiveness if we haven’t entered into the reality of forgiveness. And without acknowledging we are sinners, confessing our situation, and asking for forgiveness, we will never change into the people who are tough enough to admit that our conduct has negatively impacted the world that hillbilly children and grand-children are living in today in Appalachia and in the Rust Belt. Upper-class society won’t change cities like Dayton, but if my people become changed people from the inside out we might just be able to change our own society into one that confesses, forgives, and then begins the slow process of reconciling itself, so that the children of today’s hillbilly children will have more opportunity. I believe it is the Gospel that accomplishes this and nothing else.

Moving forward I will only comment on the parts of HE (Hillbilly Elegy) that I underlined as I read through Vance’s book the first time. I will begin by making mention of Middletown as compared to the town I am from-Miamisburg. In the Dayton/Cincinnati area Miamisburg would be considered a little bit nicer than Middletown, but still hillbillyish to the outside world (although it’s always seemed pretty status quo to me). I did not realize this until I went to college at a small Christian school about 30 miles east of Dayton called Cedarville. It was at Cedarville that the wealthy middle to upper-class students informed me I have a “Southern” accent and am kind of a redneck. I said we have a word for that where I’m from called a “briar.” Nobody there knew what I meant by “briar” which assured me I was the only briar there and none of them fully understood briar culture. Miamisburg wasn’t all poor though, and I didn’t always live in the not-so-nice parts of Miamisburg-sometimes I did but not always. Middletown was further along in its collapse relative to Miamisburg, and Middletown did also have a lot more diversity than my very white hometown. Aside from these differences I would say the two cities are fairly similar, and were dominated by working-class whites whose families had moved into the region due to fleeing Appalachia for factory jobs.

Of particular interest to evangelicals should be page 93 of HE. On this page, Vance describes the culture of southwestern Ohio’s “evangelicals.” Many in this culture felt pressured into claiming they were Christians, but in reality their church interest and attendance was low. He goes on to note the bizarre juxtaposition that churches “remain a positive force in people’s lives, but in a part of the country slammed by the decline of manufacturing, joblessness, addiction, and broken homes, church attendance has fallen off.” Now, we evangelicals should read that statistic and ask “Why?” I believe Vance answers this question without him actually trying to answer it. Later in the same chapter he discusses the way in which he “heard more about the gay lobby and the war on Christmas than about any particular character trait that a Christian should aspire to have. I recalled that moment with J.D.’s Mamaw as an instance of secularist thinking rather than an act of Christian love. “Morality was defined by not participating in this or that particular social malady:  the gay agenda, evolutionary theory, Clintonian liberalism, or extramarital sex.” Here is the issue:  as long as Christians in regions such as southwest Ohio continue to go on and on about what we should NOT do people will only hear that and will never hear what Jesus DID do! Our churches need to be Gospel places that are known for always being on about the Gospel, our churches do not need to be socio-political places that are known for always being on about secondary issues. That isn’t to say secondary issues aren’t important-it is simply to say secondary issues are secondary issues, and so they shouldn’t find themselves at the forefronts of our churches. When these churches carry on with who Jesus is and what His Word says the church will flourish, because that is God’s promise to us. When this happens people will stop believing they are Christians when they truly aren’t because they will finally see the attractive aroma of a group of local Christians who are truly different from the rest of the world because they have been changed by the Gospel by God’s grace-that should be our goal.

On page 128, Vance mentions my hometown. In that chapter he talks about how lonely he felt at a time in his life when his Mom had married a guy who lived in Miamisburg apart from his sister, so he was forced to live with this new “dad” and his kids. My thought at this point of the book was how normal this type of situation was for so many kids back in Miamisburg and just how sad it is… And here is the problem posed in a question, “Why do people not realize how tragic the circumstances of divorce and broken families truly are?” What Vance is describing here is the contrast between his sister’s decisions and his Mother’s. His Mom had chosen to marry and remarry a number of times which caused J.D. to have a life in flux until he was 18. His sister had chosen to marry and stay married probably in part motivated by having experienced how tragic divorce truly is. As long as our culture continues to treat divorce as if it is a decent band-aid to fix our decisions and struggles we will continue pumping out kids who have to deal with it-like me and J.D. Vance believed he was pointing out the cause and effect situations of poverty among white working class “Hillbillies,” but the way I look at it he may have really been showing people the tragic effects of broken down families.

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