Hillbilly Elegy


Many of you know that I live in the mountains of western Virginia. We're hardworking bunch, knit together by family, shared sense of community, and a particular love for this region. Here, my kids go to local schools, and my husband pastors a small church at a bend of a long country road. A graveyard sits on the right and a cow pasture on the left. A small stream runs through the pasture and is home to minnows, tadpoles, lizards, and crawdads.

But not everything is idyllic. Like many other communities, we're increasingly affected by income disparity, drug use, & the breakdown of the nuclear family, Travel just a bit farther west and you'll hit the coal fields of southern WV and eastern KY. The challenges these folks face make ours seem like child's play. It's hard to understand the challenges of rural life because outsiders tend to idealize it (Mayberry) or mock it (Beverly Hillbillies). What we don't do is take a careful look at the complexities of it.

In the recently released, Hillbilly Elegy, author J.D. Vance chronicles the story of "his people"--from growing up an Ohio factory town to returning to his ancestral home in the hills of eastern Kentucky. Vance's childhood was marked by family chaos and underachievement. It was a childhood and family that he loves deeply nonetheless. But Vance doesn't mince words: he honors the humanity of these self-described "hillbillies" at the same time he calls them to own their potential.

One of the most enlightening aspects of the book is Vance's take on how religion plays out in working class communities. There's often a deep-seated sense of faith or belief in God, but for the most part, the rural poor are detached from local churches. Vance wonders out loud how much this is their own fault and how much it is the fault of church. I've wondered the same thing myself. Many times.

Are our church's even accessible to folks outside a certain demographic? And if they aren't, how can we change that?

Here's my longer review of the book and a podcast in which I argue that it will be among the most influential books of 2016.