Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy

I read the New York Times Bestseller Hillbilly Elegy, and it is a very good book.  It is well written, honest, and gives a glimpse into a life style many don’t know.  The subject matter makes the book tend towards sadness and pity, but has just enough humor in it to stop it from becoming overly depressing.  The book looks at not just the life, but the mind-set behind what we think of as Appalachia. 

Full disclosure, I grew up in Appalachia.  So much so that when I read the opening chapter of this book and he said his family lived in Ohio from Kentucky, I thought “That is not Appalachia; that is not the South.”  I had to fight against my own upbringing to be able to listen to this Ohio guy talk about Appalachia.  I have been to many towns like Jackson, KY, and my own hometown would probably be Middletown, OH if Eastman chemical ever closed.  I imagine Kingsport maybe a lot like the Middletown that his grandparents moved to when their factory was still open.

Remembering that I actually enjoyed the book, don’t buy the hype that this book is “a civilized reference guide for an uncivilized election” as Jennifer Senior from the New York Times writes.  It really has nothing to do with the election.  It is a look into a forgotten group of people.  Maybe this forgottenness played a role in the election, but the book is not really trying to address any of that. 
It is a beautiful picture of a society that grows increasingly more lost.  The brokenness, the hopelessness, and the ever rising climate of drugs and violence are real.  I went home to Kingsport this year, the first time in four years, and the change is saddening.  There is such a thing as mountain poor, and this books shows it well.  It also ends up showing how that poverty does not stay in the mountains but ends up in places like Middletown, OH.  If you want a look at what poverty can do to people and to a community, then read this book.  It is revealing and eye opening.

However, the book is ultimately very frustrating for not only its lack of answers, which it is upfront about, but also its inability to see the real problem staring it in the face. 

JD Vance, the author, ends the book talking about some need for social safety nets are needed and how some problems the government can’t fix.  He is trying to advocate for some middle of the road kind of approach.  But, if he would just read his own book with a thought of Christ and the gospel, he would have the major portion of his answer.  Vance’s story involves a broken home, a mother who was a drug addict and a father who ran off.  Multiple marriages later, and more abuse than I care to think about, Vance escapes thanks to the GI bill and divine providence that goes unrecognized.  At one point in the book, Vance lives with his mother’s second husband and adopted father.  The father has found religion, admittedly a Pentecostal variety, but he is now married and with kids of his own.  Vance is surprised at how normal they are and how they don’t fight, they don’t scream, and they don’t hurt each other.  But, he does not stay because he feels he doesn’t belong and he will not give up his rock-n-roll CDs.  His own family, including grandparents, profess but never really go to church.  He often wonders why some make it and some don’t.  But, he often acknowledges the devastation of the broken home created by divorce and regrets the social ethic he learned of looking down on education and elevating fighting.  The problems Mr. Vance sees are sin, and the solution is Jesus Christ.  The problems stem from an unchristian worldview and can be fixed by the blood of the savior and following His worldview.  Yet, it is not really ever considered as an option. 

It is heartbreaking to think of generations of those trapped in the hopelessness of this environment.  But the solution is not going to be found ultimately in anything man invents.  The solution is the hope of Jesus Christ who redeems us from our sins and saves us from all the power of the devil.  Mr. Vance may have escaped Middletown, OH and Jackson, KY, but he has not escaped the problem.  Appalachia is a place where the reigning power of sin has beaten the hope out of people.  Their reality demands a hopelessness.  He has traded it for a world of money and power where the reigning power of sin feeds delusion and lies regarding the problem, the answer, and situation ending up in misplaced hope and shifting sand confidence.  Both places are under the reigning power of sin and subject to the wrath of God because of it. 

Without the gospel, the Hillbilly Elegy ends much, much worse than what he lived through.  Without the gospel it ends in damnation and eternal torment.  With the gospel, it not only avoids damnation and gives a better life after death, but it redeems life on earth and equips people to handle the situations faced even in the deep “hollars” of Appalachia.