Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. Harper. 272 pages. 2016
The author admits at the start that it is a bit strange for a 31-year old who hasn’t really accomplished anything to be writing his memoir. But I respectfully beg to differ with him. He has accomplished something – a lot; J.D. Vance is a survivor.
He writes that he almost squandered all of the talents he had, until he was rescued, primarily by a few key members of his family. Admitting that he has a complicated relationship with his parents (his father gave him up for adoption, and his addict mother subjected him to living with man after man, many of them she would marry), he tells his and his people’s story of growing up in the Appalachian town of Jackson, Kentucky and then later in the Rust Belt town of Middletown, Ohio. Because of the instability of his mother, he was primarily raised by his beloved (and foul-mouthed) grandmother (Mamaw), who claimed to be a Christian, but despised organized religion and didn’t go to church, and her husband Papaw, the most important man in his life. He would teach J.D. that the measure of a man is how he treats the women in his life. Papaw voted for Reagan, but after that, only for Democrats. His sister Lindsay, who once looked after both of them when she was just out of high school, is very dear to him as well, along with his Aunt Wee.
Vance, a political conservative, and professing Christian, writes of his people – Scotch-Irish (Hillbillies, Rednecks or Hill People), and their migration from Kentucky to Middleton along the “Hillbilly Highway”. Poverty would follow them from Kentucky to Ohio.
As he grew up Vance would see Middleton and the neighborhood he grew up in deteriorate. As industry left town, shops closed. Armco, which he states pretty much built the town, was purchased by Kawasaki Steel Corporation in 1987.
Vance’s story reads like someone who has been in the foster care system. He had no overall stability, bounced from living with his mother (and various men), to his grandparents, and even his biological father, who was by then a devout Christian. But he never did go into the foster care system, writing that he once lied to a judge to save his mom from imprisonment, which allowed him to continue to live with her and his grandparents.
J.D. grew up amongst much irrational behavior (drinking, drug use, violence, etc.). His Mom tried to commit suicide and once threatened to kill J.D. At one time, she demanded that he provide a urine sample for her so that she wouldn’t lose her job.
Education was not valued in Middleton overall, but it was a value strongly emphasized in his grandparents’ home. At one time, J.D. nearly flunked out of school. However, after Papaw died, J.D. would spend three years living with Mamaw. Those three years changed his life. His grades improved and he got his first job as a cashier at a grocery store.
He would then join the Marines for four years, including time in Iraq. He writes of how his perspective changed when he was in the Marines, from being mad and resentful to thankful. It also changed the expectations he had for himself. When he returned to Middletown for a time after the Marines, and before enrolling at Ohio State University, he found that while he was optimistic, his old friends were pessimistic.
After graduating Summa Cum Laude from Ohio State, where at one time he held three jobs, he attended Yale Law School, where he would meet future wife Usha. At a point in time he began to see himself behaving with Usha just as his Mom had in her relationships. He was always ready for battle, and used his words as weapons. He attributes this to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE).
He indicates that he had never tried sympathy with his Mom. He tried to better understand her as he increasingly saw her behavior in himself. He asks where blame stops and sympathy should begin, and wonders if people like himself can ever really change.
As he tells his story, he offers commentary on his people, the white working class. He states that among his people, there is a love of country, but also a distrust of government and of President Obama in particular. He writes of the Hillbilly white working class beginning to move to the Republican Party with President Nixon. He also writes that we need to adjust how social service systems handle families like his.
Vance writes that he is lucky. I say that he is a survivor, and a successful one at that. He writes of how many variables had to fall in place in order to give him a chance. He writes of role models (family members and mentors) who have helped him. He wonders where he would be without them.
Note, the book includes a significant amount of adult language throughout, most, but not all, from the mouth of Mamaw.
Settle for More by Megyn Kelly. Harper. 352 pages. 2016
The star of Fox News’ The Kelly File tells her story – from growing up in upstate New York with loving parents to becoming a successful lawyer on the way to partnership, to a career change that led her to becoming one of the most recognized news personalities hosting her own show on Fox News and her relationship with President-Elect Donald Trump. Along the way she comes across as confident, yet transparent about her insecurities. She reads the audiobook version of the book well.
Kelly was born in nearby Champaign, Illinois in 1970 and her family moved to the Syracuse, New York area shortly after. Her parents were devout Roman Catholics. She writes lovingly of her university professor father who loved religion and philosophy, and her humorous (both intentionally and unintentionally) mother.
She was told to be who you are. There was no false praise growing up. Her father loved the song “Today”, made popular by John Denver. She writes of being overweight and an “ugly duckling” growing up, and being bullied in the 7th grade, which would foreshadow attacks she would get from Trump years later.
She tells of an argument about an expensive high school class ring she had with her father just before Christmas. She went up to bed angry at her father, who would have a heart attack and die a few hours later. She still has regrets about her final words with her father, which led her to realize how little time we really have here.
Kelly would attend Syracuse University, where her Dad had taught, and later Albany Law School. Her first job as a lawyer was at Bickel & Brewer, later moving to Jones Day. She would meet Dan, a doctor, and they would be married. However, both devoted a lot of hours to their careers, to the expense of their marriage. Kelly wasn’t happy nor fulfilled. She didn’t have meaning in her life.
She would often watch reruns of Oprah at midnight. Dr. Phil McGraw was a guest on one of those shows. Something he said spoke personally to her. He said “The only difference between you and someone you envy is you settled for less”. She took the advice to pursue being a journalist/broadcaster, eventually being hired by founder, Chairman and CEO of Fox News Roger Ailes for Fox News in 2004. Brit Hume was her supervisor and has been the greatest influence in her career in news. She would eventually be promoted to America’s Newsroom with Bill Hemmer, America Live, and in 2013, The Kelly File.
She writes of a significant stalking situation, and indicates that it will not be the last time she was physically threatened.
She met her second husband Doug Blunt, now a best-selling author, on a blind date. They have three children, ages 2, 5 and 6. She writes that becoming a mother is the most profound thing that’s ever happened to her. Being a mother has helped enhance her relationship with God.
Kelly spends a good deal of time on the 2016 Presidential campaign, which started with the first GOP debate in Cleveland in August of 2015. A few days before the debate she addressed a report that Trump had raped previous wife Ivana. Trump wasn’t happy and told her that he would unleash his “beautiful Twitter account” against her, which he would in fact do, and often, inciting his followers. This would begin one of the most difficult years for Kelly, what she refers to as the “Year of Trump”, which included death threats.
She writes of being sexually harassed by Fox News’ Roger Ailes, “the most powerful man in news”, beginning in 2005. She brought the issue to a supervisor at the time, who encouraged her to avoid Ailes. After that, the two would work together without incident for nine years. However, she would eventually bring this information forward in the 2016 Fox News investigation of Ailes. She writes that she “paid it forward” to the women coming up behind her.
What are Christians to think of Megyn Kelly? I enjoy her television show and like her even more after reading this book. She comes across as confident, yet vulnerable, openly sharing her insecurities as she writes about dealing with adversity. However, even though she states that she goes to church most Sundays, she did live with both husbands prior to marrying them and started dating before she was divorced from her first husband. She admits that she and her first husband focused more on their careers than their relationship, leading to their divorce; perhaps she has learned from that. And, her “Settle for More” life philosophy comes across as an application of Joel Osteen’s “Better Life Now” than it does in any way come across as living her life for God. On the other hand, she comes across as a very caring mother, and we can learn from her about following our true calling.
Kelly includes some adult language in the book, which she refers to as “dropping a good swear”. Despite some minor concerns, I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to Kelly’s fans and those interested in politics.
Note: unlike any other book I have reviewed, this one has been polarizing. Immediately upon its release, 80% of reviews posted on Amazon were “one star”. Read how Amazon dealt with this. My own positive review of the book was trashed by others, giving it many “unhelpful” votes. Twice, I had my positive review of the book removed by Amazon with no explanation, the first time I have had that happen. As a result, you will not find my review on Amazon.
- Christianaudio Free Book of the Month. The December free audiobook of the month from Christianaudio is a good one. It’s Francis and Lisa Chan’s book You and Me Forever: Marriage in Light of Eternity, which is read by the authors.
- Big Christianaudio Sale. Christianaudio’s Twice Yearly Sale, in which nearly all of their audiobooks are on sale for only $7.49 is on through December 23. This is a great sale!
- Tony Reinke’s Top Books of the Year. I love year-end “Best Books” lists. Tony Reinke’s is the first I’ve seen (I hold mine until the end of the year, as I’m reading books right up to that time). He lists his top 16, along with 16 other recommended books, 8 of which I’ve read.
- Book Review: What Grieving People Wish You Knew, by Nancy Guthrie. Eric Beach reviews Nancy Guthrie’s latest book, one of my top books of the year.
- 20 Quotes from Scott Sauls’s New Book on Friendship. Matt Smethurst compiles these quotes from Scott Sauls’s new book Befriend: Create Belonging in an Age of Judgment, Isolation, and Fear, which is on my reading list.
- The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life. I’m looking forward to Rick Ankiel’s upcoming autobiography.
- 10 Books Every Christian Teenager Should Read. Tim Challies offers this helpful list of books, many of which I have read.
- Sin Will Never Make You Happy. John Piper writes “The challenge before us, then, is not merely to do what God says because he is God, but to desire what God says because he is good. The challenge is not merely to pursue righteousness, but to prefer”
- Do You Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness?C. Sproul writes “Being righteous is not all that complicated; it means doing what is right. We have to have a passion to do what is right.”
- Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live?—40 Years Later. Albert Mohler writes “Schaeffer was also right that the promises of personal peace and affluence were the greatest threats to evangelical faithfulness. He was prophetic in criticizing the Christian church for a legacy of racism and the abuse of economic abundance. He was right when he looked to developments like Roe v. Wadeand knew that something seismic had shifted in the culture, and that bigger shocks were yet to come. He was also asking precisely the right question: How should we then live? That question, which troubled Schaeffer so much in 1976, troubles all of us now. We’re about to find out if Christians in this generation are going to believe and to live authentic biblical Christianity. How will we live now?”
- The Long-Awaited Successor to J C Ryle’s Holiness. David Murray reviews Sinclair Ferguson’s excellent new book Devoted to God, which is my top book of the year. He writes “Within the first few pages I was hooked by what I believe will go on to become a classic book on holiness and a worthy modern successor to Ryle’s earlier work.”
- 7 Books That Changed My Life. Russell Moore writes “These are not (necessarily) the best books I’ve ever read. They are books that came around at just the right time to change things for me.”
- Book Briefs. Kevin DeYoung gives a brief overview of ten books he’s read recently.
- Love Warrior. Aimee Byrd reviews Glennon Doyle Melton’s memoir, Love Warrior. She writes “And I feel betrayed. The substance that I was so attracted to throughout the first three quarters of the book pinpointed the messages of the sexual revolution with such clarity. But Melton ends the book with a Christianized version of that same movement. She ostensibly fights for family and is horrified that other women have been brought into her marriage, threatening her children’s gift of a mommy and daddy who love one another. But this book was just released in September and she is already pronouncing her love for another woman.
- An Evangelical’s Guide to the Enneagram. John Starke writes “The strength of the Enneagram is that it exposes where we might need healing and what vices might be causing division with others and even within ourselves. As Christians, we use the Enneagram as a tool to find healing not by becoming our true selves but by finding ourselves more truly in Christ. And we become more virtuous not by authenticity but by imitation.”
- 365 Free eBooks. Check out this list of free ebooks, listed by author in alphabetical order, from Monergism.
- Help! My Friend Is Reading a Dangerous Book. Watch this six-plus minute video in which Noël Piper, Kathleen Nielson, and Gloria Furman discuss how to foster spiritual discernment in reading through friendship.
BOOK CLUBS – Won’t you read along with us?
Jesus Outside the Lines: A Way Forward for Those Who Are Tired of Taking Sides by Scott Sauls
This is a book I’ve been wanting – and not wanting – to read for a while. I’ve wanted to read it because I enjoy Scott Sauls’ blog posts and I’ve heard a lot of good things about the book. He’s a pastor in the same denomination I serve in, he served with Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, graduated from Covenant Seminary and is a St. Louis Cardinals fan. What’s not to like about the guy?
I’ve not wanted to read the book because I think it’s going to challenge me to get out of my comfortable box. How about reading along with Tammy and I?
This week we look at highlights from Chapter Seven: Hypocrite or Work in Progress?
- “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ”. According to Gandhi, his way of life was inspired first and foremost by the life and teachings of Jesus. Yet Gandhi never seriously considered becoming a Christian. Not because of Christ, but because of Christians. Gandhi saw very little of Christ in the lives of Christians.
- The Bible itself says that we all fall short, we all do things that our inmost selves don’t want to do, and even our best deeds are as filthy rags in comparison to the goodness of God.The people of Jesus are woefully unable to represent Christ as Christ represents himself.
- It’s not just modern people who struggle to live consistently with what they believe. The Bible reveals again and again the timeless tension of humanity grappling with hypocrisy.
- As strange as it may sound, it is the hypocrisy of Christians in the Bible that sometimes encourages me more than anything else. It reminds me that God’s relentless grip on me, not my relentless grip on God, keeps me in his love. It reminds me that if there is hope for prostitutes and crooks and adulterers and racists and elitists and murderers and terrible husbands and coveters, then there is hope for somebody like me.
- Another thing I appreciate about Christianity is that it gives me freedom to be honest about my sins, shortcomings, and inconsistencies.
- The more I recognize that because of Jesus I will never have to face God’s judgment, the more I can allow my hypocrisy to be brought into the light by God and others.
- Shouldn’t we evaluate Jesus on his own merits rather than the flaws of his followers?
- There are many other Christians like David who, though inconsistent and hypocritical in certain areas and seasons of their lives, have brought unparalleled goodness and beauty into the world in response to the grace and love of Christ.
- No other religion, philosophy, or person has inspired self-donating love and sacrificial service more than a vital, living faith in Jesus Christ and the power of his death and resurrection.
- It is through imperfect Christians that scores of life-giving contributions have left the world better, not worse—and about which even Gandhi might be inspired.
- Christians are, by and large, significantly different from many of the negative caricatures sometimes portrayed in media, comedy, and film.
- Most of us, when we act out of sync with the life, teachings, and mission of Jesus, are actually not proud of it but grieved by it.
- I am eager for the Christian story to put a spotlight on the same thing that the biblical story does—that Jesus is quite fond of humbled hypocrites, and he loves to save humbled hypocrites from themselves.
- Though we are all hypocrites, through Christ and with Christ and because of Christ we are never hopelessly and terminally stuck in our hypocrisy. A central focus of the vision of Jesus is to save us from sin—and in the process, to save us from ourselves.
- But in saving us from ourselves, Jesus also aims to transform us, over time, into his own likeness.
- It is when we become tired of ourselves, weary of our own failed efforts, that Jesus meets us with hope.
- How do we Christians, become the kind of people who make others want to know more about Jesus? The Bible helps us see how: it is the loveliness of Jesus, and only the loveliness of Jesus, that can make hypocrites lovely.
- How do hypocrites become like Jesus? It starts by belonging to Jesus, by being washed, sanctified, and justified by Jesus, and especially by being with Jesus.
- It is in being with Jesus that hypocrites start to become like Jesus. We must preoccupy ourselves less with trying to be like him and more with simply being with him. It is not fruit we should be seeking; it is Jesus.
- Loveliness and holiness and fruit will not grow when we try to make them grow. Rather, these will grow as by-products of being in the presence of, considering the excellencies of, and marinating in the truth and beauty of the one who loves us and gave himself for us and in whom there is never a shred of hypocrisy.
Studies in the Sermon on the Mount by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones
This book made a significant impact on my wife Tammy when she read and discussed it with friends thirty years ago. When I picked up my diploma the day after graduation ceremonies from Covenant Seminary last year I was given a copy of this book. After enjoying Lloyd-Jones book Spiritual Depression (and the sermons the book was taken from), I couldn’t wait to read this book, which is the printed form of sermons preached for the most part on successive Sunday mornings at Westminster Chapel in London.
This week we look at Chapter Nine from Volume Two, “Sin’s Foul Bondage”
- The first thing we must note is that sin is obviously something that has an entirely disturbing and upsetting effect upon the normal balance in man, and the normal functioning of his qualities.
- Man, as the result of sin and the Fall, is no longer governed by his mind and understanding; he is governed by his desires, his affections and his lusts. That is the teaching of Scripture.
- It is the heart that covets these worldly things, and the heart in sinful man is so powerful that it governs his mind, his understanding and his intellect.
- This is one of the greatest tragedies about sin and its effects. In the first instance it upsets the order and the balance; and the greatest and supreme gift becomes subservient to the lesser. `Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’
- The second thing that sin does is to blind man in certain vital respects.
- In the same way sin blinds us to the relative values of things.
- Is it not true that all the things about which we bother so much belong to a very short span of time, and though we know that there are other things that are eternal and endless, we scarcely stop to think about them at all? That is the effect of sin-relative values are not appreciated.
- Consider yet another respect in which sin and evil blind the mind of man. They blind him to the impossibility of mixing opposites. It is all here. Man is always trying to mix things which cannot be mixed. Still worse is the fact that he persuades himself that he can do it successfully. He is quite sure this compromise is possible, and yet our Lord tells us it is not.
- Once you have lost the division between the world and the Church, the Church ceases to be truly Christian.
- The next effect of sin upon man is to make him a slave of things that were meant to serve him. This is one of the terrible, tragic things about it. According to our Lord here, these earthly, worldly things tend to become our god. We serve them; we love them. Our heart is captivated by them; we are at their service.
- All these things that can be so dangerous to our souls because of sin were given to us by God, and we were meant to enjoy them-food and clothing, family and friends and all such things. These are all but a manifestation of the kindness and the graciousness of God. He has given them to us that we might have a happy and enjoyable life in this world; but because of sin, we have become their slaves.
- The last point, however, is the most serious and the most solemn of all. The final effect of sin upon mankind is that it entirely ruins man. That is the teaching of the Bible from beginning to end.
- How does sin ruin man? It ruins man in the sense that, having spent his lifetime in laying up certain things here on earth, he finds himself at the end with nothing.
- Think of all the things for which you tend to be living at this moment, the things that really count, the things that really matter in your life. Then ask yourself this simple question: `How many of these things will I be able to take with me when I die?’ That is the test.
- Sin is final ruination which leaves a man with nothing at the end.
- If you are not a Christian do not trust your mind; it is the most dangerous thing you can do. But when you become a Christian your mind is put back in the center and you become a rational being.
- There is nothing more tragic than for a man to find at the end of his life that he has been entirely wrong all the time.