The only answer to the hillbilly brokenness is the gospel. And it’s a gospel which isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty but also a gospel which is deeply theological. Cultural Christianity isn’t the answer because it’s part of the problem. A resurgence of Mayberry might address some of the brokenness but it will just nice people all the way into hell. And I’m convinced an attractional model might draw a crowd but it won’t make a dent in the actual everyday brokenness of life out here in hillbilly land. The only answer is a thorough gospel.
I’ve been interacting a bit with JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. I’m currently pastoring in hillbilly country. (One of our gas stations is actually called Hillbilly’s). And I’m not a foreigner. I grew up as a hillbilly in rural Northeast Missouri. Some might have been shocked reading about JD’s Mamaw and the way she talked of God. Not me. I see it every day. Let this one jar you a bit:
By Mamaw’s reckoning, God never left our side. He celebrated with us when times were good and comforted us when they weren’t. During one of our many trips to Kentucky, Mamaw was trying to merge onto the highway after a brief stop for gas. She didn’t pay attention to the signs, so we found ourselves headed the wrong way on a one-way exit ramp with angry motorists swerving out of our way. I was screaming in terror, but after a U-turn on a three-lane interstate, the only thing Mamaw said about the incident was, “We’re fine, g*******t. Don’t you know Jesus rides in the car with me?” (Vance, 86)
Here you’ve got a woman passionately saying the Lord’s name in vain, being a bit flippant and untheological in her declaration of the Lord’s protection, but at the exact same time having a deep faith that in the love and presence of God. Now wrap your mind around this one. When young JD asks Mamaw if God loved them he recounts how his grandmother was wounded by the question:
The question wounded Mamaw because the Christian faith stood at the center of our lives, especially hers. We never went to church, except on rare occasions in Kentucky or when Mom decided that what we needed in our lives was religion. Nevertheless, Mamaw’s was a deeply personal (albeit quirky) faith. She couldn’t say “organized religion” without contempt. She saw churches as breeding grounds for perverts and money changers…(Vance, 85)
How in the world can you say that the Christian faith stands at the center of your life but you never go to church? Let’s be honest, such a Christian faith isn’t the same Christian faith of the Bible. What Vance is talking about, and what we see of the faith of Mamaw, is the cultural Christianity of the Bible Belt. It’s the moralistic therapeutic deism of which Christian Smith says is the majority religion of Americans. This is the Bad Religion which caused Ross Douthat to call us a nation of heretics. Yet this is the faith of many Americans…especially amongst the hillbilly population.
Sharing the gospel here in Southwest Missouri, and especially inviting folks to church, is seldom met with resistance. Most of the people here have had some religious exposure and likely even claim some sort of faith in Jesus. Many of the people have probably even been baptized, prayed some sort of prayer of salvation, or had a type of religious experience. Though there is a growing number of folks who have little to no exposure to the gospel, for the most part people view the church and the message of the gospel as something they’ve already done and tried.
So here is what we have in the context that I minister. 65% of our students are on reduced or free lunches. I would venture another 10% could probably qualify but just didn’t fill out the paper work or had too much pride to accept a handout. Poverty is rampant in our little community. So are drugs. Meth is the drug of choice in this area. Broken families are more common than intact families.
And for many people the problem is “out there” and the solution is certainly not the gospel or the church.