It’s been a while since I’ve posted here on this blog. I find that my time for writing and creative thought tends to go in phases, and the last couple of months have been slower in that regard. But as is usually the case, something comes along that stirs up ideas in me, and the train gets back on the track. That “something” most recently was reading a book called Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. It’s the personal memoir of J.D. Vance. Vance, according to the author bio, “…grew up in the Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio, and the Appalachian town of Jackson, Kentucky. He enlisted in the Marine Corps after high school and served in Iraq. A graduate of the Ohio State University and Yale Law School, he has contributed to the National Review and is a principal at a leading Silicon Valley investment firm. Vance lives in San Francisco with his wife and two dogs.” It was a book that I came across several different places; a friend reading it here, an online review there, a quote in an article I was reading. Sometimes when certain things like that keep happening I get a sense that I am supposed to follow up and read the book. So I requested it from our local library and 4 days later is was sitting on the table by my chair in our living room.
I really enjoyed the book. Vance is a good writer, and his commentary on what he calls “hillbilly culture” resonated with much of what I saw and experienced growing up in the western mountains of North Carolina. While my family life was nothing like his, I saw reflections of the culture around my childhood and youth all throughout his book. It’s a great read and one that will give you insight into much of the dynamics that surround the current culture of poor, white America.
What twigged this blog entry however was the following quote. JD, after one extremely painful experience filled with disappointment for his sister, asked his grandmother, “Does God love us?” He continues by explaining why this was such a painful question for her, detailing how her faith, though unorthodox by most standards, was none the less deeply rooted in her life. He ends this discussion of her faith by reflecting on his own experience. He writes, “The fallen world described by the Chrsitian religion matched the world I saw around me: one where a happy car ride could quickly turn to misery, one where individual misconduct rippled across a family’s and a community’s life. When I asked Mamaw if God loved us, I asker her to reassure me that this religion of ours could still make sense of the world we lived in. I needed reassurance of some deeper justice, some cadence or rhythm that lurked beneath the heartache and chaos.” (p.81)
What Vance is describing is one of our deepest, most commonly held traits as human beings. We long for something more; something deeper, something beyond. To know that there is some “deeper justice, some cadence or rhythm that lurked beneath the heartache and chaos.” We all feel this, even if most times we aren’t even sure what we are longing for. It’s why we cry at movies when the good guy wins, or when someone sacrifices all they are for some greater cause. We want to believe and to know that there is something deeper and more profound that what we experience. Charles Taylor, in his book A Secular Age, refers to this as the haunting of transcendence. We all sense something bigger, but can’t quite explain this urge that lies within us. Try as we might we can’t ever really get away from this deep desire and longing, it is embedded deep within our psyche.
Churches have done us a great disservice by trying to soothe this desire with answers and explanations. We substitute ritual or doctrinal statements for encounter with transcendence. But no matter how much those things help for a while, we end up feeling the same longing. It’s because this longing is for relationship. We were created to be included in a relationship with a transcendent God. Our hearts are wired for that connection and nothing else will really satisfy it. Sadly, the church has often become the last place people think they should look for this connection. Far to many people look at church with a “been there, done that” attitude. I understand that, but I truly believe that for all their failures, churches (and by churches I mean the group of people seeking God together, not the building or the organization per se) are one of the main ways God has designed to move us past ourselves and closer to Him.
Vance’s book is a great read, and I highly recommend it. It’s another reminder to me that at the core, we all long for the same thing - a connection with the transcendent God that brings life, real life, into our day to day existence. In Vance’s words, something that could “make sense of the world we lived in.” I believe that is possible. I hope you will continue to seek it.