Hillbilly Christianity

The presidential candidacy of one Donald J. Trump has driven members of the coastal elite looking for explanations for his success: who is voting for this guy?

162224This summer, many members of the media thought they found an answer in a book by J.D. Vance: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Even the normally staid Economist declared: “You will not read a more important book about America this year.”

Vance, a veteran and a Yale Law graduate, writes of his upbringing in Rust Belt Ohio, the child of transplants from Kentucky, and the family instability, economic crisis, and cultural values he experienced. His conclusion, more or less, is that the problems facing the white working class are not just the result of economic displacement as a result of globalization but also a set of cultural values that don’t nurture the necessary attitude to survive in the world. When he told his father he had was going to Yale Law, his father asked if he had “pretended to be black of liberal.” “This is how low the cultural expectations of working-class white Americans have fallen,” Vance writes. “We should hardly be surprised that as attitudes like this one spread, the number of people willing to work for a better life diminishes.” (p. 194)

You can make what you will of that argument. But when I read this book, I was struck by his passing references to Christianity and its role among his hillbilly family. He describes his grandmother, who played the most significant role in his life, as someone who, every night, watched Law & Order, read the Bible, and fell asleep. “The Christian faith stood at the center of our lives, especially hers.” But she also hardly ever attended church, “couldn’t say ‘organized religion’ without contempt,” and “saw churches as breeding grounds for perverts and money changers.” Her faith was, in his words, “unsophisticated.” Once, when she nearly caused a car accident, scaring Vance, she turned to him and said, ‘We’re fine, goddammit. Don’t you know Jesus rides in the car with me?” (pp. 85-86)

This theology, Vance concludes, was what he needed to hear: “To coast through life was to squander my God-given talent, so I had to work hard. I had to take care of my family because Christian duty demanded it. I needed to forgive, not just for my mother’s sake but for my own. I should never despair, for God had a plan.” (p. 86)

As a pre-teen, Vance became associated with an evangelical church, read the Left Behind books, learns how there is a war on Christmas, discusses whether the Antichrist is already alive, and realizes the world is “lurch[ing] toward moral corruption—slouching toward Gomorrah.” (p. 98) Before long, however, he rejects this, realizing in retrospect that this version of Christianity was “sowing the seeds for an outright rejection of the Christian faith.” (p. 99) (There are hints towards the end of the book that he has returned to church as he is writing.)

What I am struck by in this description is the pervasive influence of Christian rhetoric—the Bible, Jesus, Christianity all figure as important ideas in his life—but also the apparent insufficiency of this rhetoric. The Christian answers he and his grandmother have  do not help them cope with the situation they find themselves in. And it’s no wonder: the version of Christianity his grandmother presents strikes me as one version of what I have called in the past “just do it Christianity,” that is, it’s clear what you have to do—work hard, take care of your family—so just do it already. But what if there are no jobs to work at or the jobs that there are don’t pay nearly enough? What if your mother is—like Vance’s—an addict who gives rise to immensely complex feelings in her children?

Meanwhile, when he does attend church he is directed to apparently central issues—the end times—but is offered no convincing resources (theological or otherwise) to cope with the situation of family and societal breakdown in which he finds himself. Gradually—and understandably—he drifts away.

From my privileged, outsider position, it is relatively easy to point this all out (and wish that Vance had written more about Christianity in the book). But it’s much harder to figure out how to respond to it. I can offer a theological critique of it—Christianity is precisely not about our hard work, but the work done by Christ in his death and resurrection; Jesus had some very hard things to say about family relations; Christianity is concerned with our lives here and now because God in Christ comes into the midst of them and transforms them now—but none of this changes the fact that the version of Christianity he describes holds great sway among many people.

Perhaps one of the most concerning things about the state of American Christianity is its segmentation: there are correlations between socio-economic status and both church attendance and the kind of church one belongs to. People like Vance’s grandmother have given up on church—or has the church given up on them?—but they haven’t given up on the rhetoric of Christianity. There are clear opportunities for churches to minister alongside such communities. But if we cannot overcome the vast social distance between our churches and such communities, such ministry will never even begin.

Can a Starbucks barista find a place in the Episcopal Church?

Number 41 is an Episcopalian

It’s no secret that the Episcopal Church has historically been associated with a particular stratum of society—white, educated, socially connected, middle- to upper-class. The Presiding Bishop used to live in Greenwich, Connecticut—and now lives (or could live) in a Manhattan penthouse. We are a church that can count the number of presidents who have been members and can cite the large number of elected officials who belong. There has always been a number of African-Americans in the Episcopal Church but by and large in majority-black congregations. Power—thanks to the church’s abysmal history of race relations—has remained with the church’s white (and usually male) members.

In recent years and decades, this has begun to change. There are now several African-American bishops, including two of dioceses south of the Mason-Dixon line. There is a growing interest in Spanish-language ministry. We ordain priests from immigrant and Native American communities. Above all, there is the recognition that simply being the church of the white elite is no longer an option—not if we are serious about thriving in the wonderful hetereogeneity of 21st-century America nor, for that matter, if we are serious about being the body of Christ.

At the same time, the church has come to be dominated by a theology that centres on the “mission of God.” There is much to admire about this emphasis—indeed, I wrote a book about it. But I want to highlight one aspect of this emphasis. In the current theology of the church, the word mission is, as I have written at length elsewhere, often associated with a constellation of other words: task, job, do, work, labour, obligation. I once called this the Nike theology of mission: just do it. Get out there and do the work of God.

It is a truism that all theology is contextual and emerges from a particular community. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders found a powerful parallel in Exodus and God’s deliverance from oppression. During a catastrophic civil war in southern Sudan, it is not surprising that people were drawn to Christianity in part because of the promise of eternal life. When your friends are dying, you begin to think about what comes after life.

The current emphasis on mission in the Episcopal Church can be seen in a similar way. It may not always feel like this but Episcopalians are, by and large, people who tend to have disposable time and disposable income. When we hear calls to volunteer at soup kitchens, start homeless shelters, donate to food banks, or whatever, it is not unreasonable for us to think about responding. In my experience of the Episcopal Church, Episcopalians are people who come from an action-oriented stratum of society that is used to exercising its own agency. When we hear calls to “mend the world,” we might think it’s a tall order but we might also think it’s not unreasonable to start making plans.

Spotted from time to time in an Episcopal church
Spotted from time to time in an Episcopal church

All of this came to mind while reading a lengthy investigation in the New York Times recently about modern labour practices. The article focused on a young, single-mother who has no certainty in her work schedule from Starbucks and so ends up living a life of constant chaos, torn between child care, work, transit between the two, and with barely any time for any of her major life goals, like education or a driver’s license.

The article doesn’t say but I’d guess that this young woman is not a member of the Episcopal church. She may not be a member of any church, in fact. But let’s imagine she walks into her local Episcopal church on a Sunday morning and hears a sermon exhorting her to join in the mission of God, to get out there and build the kingdom, to do, to labour, to work. It’s not unreasonable to think that her response might be, “I can barely keep my head above water as it is. Why would I want to join a church that tells me I need to do more work?”

IMG_1768There’s a picture I once took on a weekday afternoon in a Nigerian church. There was a young woman, praying with her head bowed in a side pew. Over her was a sign that read, “The steadfastness of the Lord never ceaseth.” I was reminded in that moment of the deep well that is Christian theology with its themes of mercy, reconciliation, peace, redemption, truth, and so much more. This woman (I’m guessing) found her faith expressed at a moment of Christian consolation. You don’t have to do anything—just dwell in the love of God.

(As I write this, I am recalling a sermon I once preached on Matthew 11.28-30—”come to me, all you that are weary…”—and focused on how we were being called to take up the yoke of mission. All work, little consolation.)

The truth is, I can only tell you about what draws me to Christianity and to the Episcopal Church in particular. I can’t see inside the head of a Starbucks barista or a Nigerian church-goer. It is decidedly not the case that people from a lower socioeconomic background cannot mend the world or that they don’t want to try. Mission theology is not inherently misguided. But mission theology is, as all theologies are, particular to a particular community.

As Episcopalians think about our future as a church, one common theme seems to be that the main problem we face is that our message is not being heard broadly enough. We need to be better at evangelism, at church planting, and at communicating in the fractured media world of this era. All true. (And all steps that are action-oriented.) But I wonder if we might not stop and question not just how we communicate but what we communicate as well.

As Episcopalians look to transcend our historic membership patterns, we need also to think about the theology—or, more likely, theologies—that will be at the root of our new, broader community.

“Just do it”—but what about when I just can’t?

When I was growing up, a lot of people wore t-shirts or other athletic gear emblazoned with this logo:

The slogan pretty well sums up the dominant thinking of our world. We are to measure ourselves by our accomplishments and our abilities. We are judged by our marks on our exams, our ability to secure a promotion, our sexual prowess, and so on and so forth. If you can’t “just do it,” then you don’t have a place in society.

Today, a lot of people are going to be walking around with a different logo emblazoned on themselves, the one to the left. There’s no text to go along with it, but if there was, it might say, “I just can’t.” Perhaps you’ve had this experience. You try and try to “just do it” but no matter how hard you try, you just can’t.

This is where the good news of Jesus Christ begins—with the recognition that sometimes we cannot be the people God is calling us to be, sometimes we can’t do justice, love kindess, and walk humbly with our God, sometimes we can’t love our neighbour as ourselves, sometimes we can’t love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind.

And God sees all this and says, “That’s OK. You are loved.” That love is shown to us in the presence of God’s son, Jesus.

But the story doesn’t end there. And we see that in the logo Christians wear today. It’s a cross, the ultimate symbol of “I just can’t.” The cross shows just how deeply God knows the failings, imperfections, and inabilities of the world and its people.

The empty tomb on Easter Day, however, shows us how God redeems our failings and invites us into a new life in which “just do it” becomes an option in a whole new way. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves in the story.

Today, it’s alright to turn again to God and say, “I just can’t.” And hear God say, loud and clear, “I love you anyway.”