‘Hillbilly Elegy’ is really not so much a book or movie about Appalachia and its culture, but more about the consequences of sin in any culture.

Written by Larry Ball | Tuesday, December 29, 2020 

The major controversy that surrounds the book is that it contradicts the narrative of identity politics presently dominant in this country. We are told that racial injustice is only a problem with minority groups who are non-white.  White men are, by definition, oppressors.  That is the standard presupposition of identity politics.  Because the book portrays many white people who came from poor and uneducated backgrounds, the book betrays the current narrative of social justice. The book indirectly tells us that whites can be the victims of so-called inequality too.

Among upper middle-class white suburbanites, at least in their circles, the book Hillbilly Elegy has become a must-read.  As a result, some of them may view it as the standard for understanding the Appalachian culture.  During its early release the popularity among its readers was reinforced by its rise to the top of the New York Times best-sellers list.

While the book may have minimal interest among many Christians, its narrative and especially the modern public reaction to the caricature of poor white Americans in Appalachia should arouse interest in those who seek to apply the Christian faith to the culture in which we live. It is especially important in our days of critical race theory and identity politics. I will discuss this more below.

Recently, it has been made into a Netflix movie directed by Ron Howard.  It is rated R for the language; however, it is void of the typical Netflix nudity and on-screen sexual immorality. The movie review geeks of “Rotten Tomatoes” gave it a 26% favorable rating while it garnered an 86% favorability rating among the average public audience.

If you are offended by hearing bad language, then this is not the movie for you.  However, if you are able to handle the language while seeking to understand the cultural nuances in the movie, then it may be worth reading the book or watching the movie.

The movie traces the life of J.D. Vance as he was raised in an industrial city in Ohio.  His family had its origins in the hill country of Appalachia (Kentucky), and as many industrial workers did back in the latter part of the 20th century, they had to move out of the hill country to find jobs.  Many of them lived in Ohio during the week and drove home (hundreds of miles) every weekend.  Some purchased homes in Ohio.  J.D.’s mother was a drug addict, and his strong-willed, cussing grandmother (Glenn Close) was the stability factor in his family.  In spite of his difficulties of being raised in a highly dysfunctional family, Mr. Vance eventually went off to Yale and became a successful lawyer.  This is partially his autobiography.

The book derives its title from the stereotypical name of “hillbilly” given to those who were raised in Appalachia.  It is also called an elegy (a lament about the past).  Mr. Vance’s life was very hard and he had to endure much stress and embarrassment in regard to his family. He certainly has an interesting and heart-warming story to tell.

There are several take-aways from the book.  First, in my view, it is really not so much a book or movie about Appalachia and its culture, but more about the consequences of sin in any culture. One could take the same story-line and transfer it to any geographic part of the country and there would not be much difference.  However, curiosity about Appalachian culture gives the book an inviting and magnetic drawing power for outsiders (and insiders, too).

Being raised in Appalachia myself (about 40 years before Mr. Vance), I could identify with some of the tidbits in the movie (like pronouncing the word syrup as “surp,” and not knowing which eating utensils to use at a fancy dinner).  I can attest that there was grave poverty among both whites and blacks in the mountains, especially in the coal fields.  I know of both black and white men walking the railroad tracks looking for lumps of coal that may have fallen off the coal trains.  Coal provided heat for the family in the winter time.  This was before the welfare system and EBT food-stamps.  There were no free-loaders, only survivors. In the early 20th century, miners were often treated like slaves by the mine-owners.  Some of them worse than slaves.

Secondly, it is obvious that in Mr. Vance’s immediate family, there was little influence of the Christian faith.  It seems that no one ever goes to church, except for weddings and funerals. Such Christianity may be more harmful and dangerous than an outright denial of the Christian faith.  Nominal Christianity is deceitful and a harmful curse.  It gives a false assurance of being a Christian with little evidence of the new birth.

Contrary to the portrayal of this family, I can attest that there were many dedicated Christians in those hills and valleys.  The Bible had a major impact on the people and its culture.  It permeated the life and morals of the people as a whole.  Marriage between a man and a woman was held in high esteem.  Adultery was scandalous. At least, that was the Appalachia I knew.

Thirdly, as I noted above, the major controversy that surrounds the book is that it contradicts the narrative of identity politics presently dominant in this country. We are told that racial injustice is only a problem with minority groups who are non-white.  White men are, by definition, oppressors.  That is the standard presupposition of identity politics.  Because the book portrays many white people who came from poor and uneducated backgrounds, the book betrays the current narrative of social justice. The book indirectly tells us that whites can be the victims of so-called inequality too.

The idea of a white family being poor and being treated as the outcast in society is not acceptable among the modern purveyors of critical race theory, thus the low rating by “Rotten Tomatoes.”  A coal miner who was treated like an animal in days past does not fit their narrative. White children raised in poverty who made their way out of their circumstances without government aid or help do not fit their narrative either.

The people in Appalachia that I knew would rather die than take a hand-out from some government welfare system or from some redistribution-of-wealth scheme.  They were proud men whose work defined who they were.  They wanted to be independent, and any hand-outs were associated with degradation and shame.  This was part of their Christian culture.

Again, the book is much more than a story about Appalachian culture.  The book and the movie do not pass the evil white man smell-test of modern cultural warriors.  It does not fit their narrative and it challenges their presuppositions.  Therefore, it is a threat to them.

Christians today need to be aware of the philosophies of the world.  Reading books like Hillbilly Elegy can be profitable, not only in seeing how hard life was in days past even for white people, but also in recognizing how our cultural elites react to narratives that do not fit their political hegemony.

Larry E. Ball is a retired minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is now a CPA. He lives in Kingsport, Tennessee.