J.D. Vance – An Insightful Discussion

On Monday night Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue University, led a discussion with J.D. Vance, the author of the extremely popular Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. The book is a powerful telling of Vance’s own story of growing up in extremely dysfunctional homes, yet moving upwardly in society to become a Marine, college graduate and Yale-trained lawyer. If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it, especially as a way to begin to understand a group of people not usually in contact with anything approaching a healthy church.

Here are a few of the highlights of the conversation. Keep in mind that these are being processed through the mind of a pastor and may not fully reflect what Mr. Vance, who is fairly guarded about his own current faith, believes.

“We’re not people who succeed.” One of the most startling themes of the book and discussion is the mindset of many people growing up and living in poverty and dysfunction. Unlike so many others in our nation, Vance grew up in a culture that simply believed success was something that happened to other people. In so many quiet and subconscious ways, many children are led to believe that they aren’t as smart or gifted and simply don’t have the option of succeeding. They don’t believe there is any connection between effort and outcome. So why try? For his own life, it took a few mentors and especially his strong-willed grandmother to keep pushing Vance out of this mindset.

This speaks to the importance of what many call a “Christian imagination.” In other words, those who trust in Christ should be those who can always imagine something better. Not that we preach a prosperity gospel, but the church ought to be a place where the inherent worth and potential of each person is believed and promoted. To come alongside someone in poverty can’t mean simply offering a temporary solution or alleviation of a few bills. It must mean convincing them (often many times over) that success is really possible.

“Life may not be fair, but don’t let that stop you.” Vance seemed to present two realities to poverty that shouldn’t be ignored (though they often are). First, those of us who haven’t faced it need to understand the extraordinary amount of cultural, family and religious factors working against the success of those growing up poor. Beyond (or in addition to) white privilege, we need to understand our middle-class privilege.

Second, those difficulties should not be allowed to keep the poor from striving for upward mobility and successful stability. In other words, it’s possible to acknowledge that life is truly difficult without using that difficulty as a motivation for laziness or despair.

“Real compassion needs to have an edge.” One of the factors behind Vance’s success is his ability to speak from within the problem of poverty with humility yet forceful grace. Thus his writings are able to pinpoint some problems with rural communities which would appear insulting coming from someone else’s pen. He went on to point out that it’s not helpful or truly empathetic to treat people as little children who have absolutely no control over their surroundings or situation. Rather, true “compassion treats people as moral agents” and thus will often have an edge to it. This is a helpful reminder to any church interested in Biblical mercy ministry: treat people as God’s Word treats them – kindly, gently, yet with the truth of their own responsibility.

“…the rotating door of father figures…” Both Daniels and Vance spoke strongly about the reality that one of the greatest indicators of a person’s failure to succeed is growing up without a father and growing up in a neighborhood where few fathers are present. The statistics and reality behind this are, as Daniels put it, “Himalayan.” Yet our society continues to look elsewhere for answerable reasons for poverty while ignoring this most clear one. And we continue to celebrate the breakdown and breakup of the God-ordained structure of the family, all the time calling for relief for the poor.

This isn’t an easy problem to “fix” but it is an important one that deserves a continual spotlight whenever we consider how to show Christ’s love to the poor. Without raising up men who will lead their families faithfully, we will only be putting bandaids on the gaping wounds of poverty, whether in inner city or rural.

“A book can make a difference.” This comment was one of the last made by President Daniels, who is not only a fan of the book but was joyous that a book can much such a huge impact in a day of blogs, memes and 24-hour news cycles. Mr. Vance’s book has indeed created a huge stir in our nation and will hopefully continue to inform many of an enormous group of people largely ignored and often despised. So, yes, books still mean something. We should be glad for this as well.

I would also encourage you to read or re-read some of the previous articles by Kyle Borg, who is devoting his life to ministry in rural America:

The Rural Church Potential
Growth in the Rural Church
Helping Rural America in Crisis
Rural & Small Town Ministry
Rural America: Is Anyone Listening? 


  1. Calthaer February 1, 2017 at 8:54 am #

    “It must mean convincing them (often many times over) that success is really possible.” I’m not so sure about this part, because I’m not so sure what we mean here by “success.” Material comfort isn’t something we’re guaranteed, but we are promised that our needs will be met. Gaining material success is also no guarantee of good relationships, godliness, or even stability. The hard truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that it enables success by the transformation and renewing of our hearts and minds, in the process often upending the very definitions of success that we might have previously grasped so tightly and vainly.

    • Jared Olivetti February 1, 2017 at 12:41 pm #

      Yes, I agree with your sentiments entirely. Part of the problem of the discussion is a certain assumption about what success is, which is never fully teased out in the book but seems to be involved in (1) upward mobility and (2) stability. Both of those are good things, of course, but not necessarily *the* Biblical definition of success. Having said that, I think the point still stands even if/when we substitute a more Biblical and holistic definition of success, that includes closeness to God and an obedient life (which will often result in the worldly definitions of success, too).

  2. Nathan Eshelman February 1, 2017 at 10:24 am #


    I too enjoyed the book greatly. As an Appalachian by birth, growing up in a “dead steel town” a couple hours north of Pittsburgh, PA, I knew all the characters of Vance’s book. I give thanks that I had a strong father figure and a stable middle class upbringing, but the poverty and dysfunction was all around me.

    A few other thoughts:

    1. The book is R rated… so if your conscience cannot handle F-words and foul-mouthed characters, don’t pick it up. It ought to be recommended with sensitivity towards consciences although the gleanings from the book are extremely valuable.

    2. As a member of the Home Mission Board of our denomination I am reminded of a conversation with another Appalachian by birth–a West Virginian–who said that no confessional mission board on the planet would pay a church planter to go into West Virginia to plant a church because they will “never get their investment back.” I have thought a lot about that. I would like to challenge the readers of GR to pray that God would raise up a church planter to go into the poorest Appalachian communities of West Virginia, and that God would also move hearts to donate specifically towards that cause. The RPCNA, at one time, had a Appalachian mission; a mission to poor white kids in Kentucky. We cannot lose opportunity with this people group. They too are image bearers.

    3. The book also helped me to think about “micro-culture.” Micro-cultures are interested in self-preservation, keeping walls high to protect those on the inside, refuse to or poorly practice critical examination of the whole group, and use “good old days” narrative to set standards. In smallish reformed circles–like the RPCNA for example–we need to be especially careful that our “micro-culture” is able to critically examine ourselves; that we reach out more than we reach in; that we maintain confessional written standards rather than unwritten standards based on what so-and-so said or did in __insert year__; etc. Vance gives us great insight into micro-culture and especially pastors and elders would do well to learn from that.

    I said it when you and Jeff announced you were going to the lecture–JEALOUS! 🙂 I would have loved to be there and to discuss. Maybe Vance will make his way down from San Francisco to Los Angeles soon and I can see him here. Two old white-trash Appalachians in California! Stranger things have happened.

    Thanks again!

    • Jared Olivetti February 1, 2017 at 10:35 am #

      Thanks Nathan, for all those comments.

      Yes, please be warned that the book is quite explicit about certain things! I never thought it was inappropriate but it certainly shows the heaviness and darkness of his childhood.

  3. jon held February 1, 2017 at 4:25 pm #

    I’m sorry I needed to miss the talk last night. Further, I suppose I need to pick up the book and pace it on the “to read” stack. It certainly seems worthy.
    My parents spent a few years as “missionaries” in Appalachia (VA) shortly after retirement. I was truly struck by the number of churches sprinkled across the mountain sides. But what was most distressing, however, was the fact they are mostly abandoned. I’m confident that the modern cultural norms that have wreaked havoc on the church at large have not missed the Appalachian region. The culture of dependency is alive and well, as is the sister culture of depression and hopelessness. I see nothing short of revival as a solution. Clearly, government and church “aid” has been a dismal and completely failing initiative; as are all plans not coupled with the gospel.
    J-red i found your comment “Without raising up men who will lead their families faithfully, we will only be putting bandaids on the gaping wounds of poverty, whether in inner city or rural.” insightful. (I’m assuming that “faithfully” means ‘within the Christian faith’.) What is most striking about the thought is that the culture, in and out of the church, has spent a couple of generations demeaning the leadership of fathers. Wives and children submitting to the leadership of the husband/father is completely de-emphasized in society and sadly within the church. It is rarely mentioned in public, outside of a marriage ceremony. There is no doubt much effort has been put into developing leadership of men, but mostly during or after a complete family meltdown. My observation is that a disproportionately small effort is placed upon the teaching of submission from wives and children. It seems to me the practice of leadership is inescapably linked to the practice of submission. And of course this practice is best incorporated into a family during happy times.

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