The Church of Christ as Hillbilly Religion

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Do people still argue about whether Taylor Swift is country? My daughter has been a Swifty her whole life so, even though I’m more of a 21 Pilots guy, I confess to knowing most Taylor Swift songs by heart. Her new song “Lover” may turn me into a Swifty yet (it’s such a great song!), but I digress . . .

A few years ago, I remember the great controversy of Taylor’s big move away from country music and into the mainstream. Was Taylor Swift too big for country? Wasn’t her music becoming more pop than country? Wasn’t she grateful for all that country had done for her? Then, in 2014, she released her album 1989 under the label “pop album” and her departure from country music was official. Today she is a bona fide worldwide, mega pop star making it hard to believe that this was ever an issue, but just a few years ago country music was lamenting her and even chastising her for selling out to pop music.

One of the real television highlights of 2019 was Ken Burns’ epic documentary series Country Music. It’s a riveting 16-hour long investigative history of country music that explores the influences and personalities that helped shape the unique genre. One of the themes that Burns follows throughout the documentary relates to Taylor Swift’s flirtation with the boundaries of the country genre. It turns out, Taylor Swift is but one artist in a long line who have toed the line between what is and what isn’t considered country. Some of country’s most famous artists including Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and even, Garth Brooks, all dealt with controversy from an affronted fanbase who feared their favorite artist had sold out.

The early episodes of Country Music describes the roots of country from deep in the hills of Appalachia and to its hillbilly inhabitants. In fact, country music was initially referred to as “Hillbilly music,” and that phrase has appeared endearingly in songs ever since (though the phrase is also used pejoratively). As Burns followed the evolution of this region’s music, I couldn’t help but note the similar trajectory that another hillbilly reality was following during this same era. The more episodes of Country Music I watched, the more I thought about the church tradition of which I am a part. There were so many similarities it was eerie. Country music is hillbilly music, and the Churches of Christ of which I have long been a part, might best be described as hillbilly religion.

They originated in the same part of the country around the same time. They both share simple, humble, rural roots. The emphasis on family values and morals extolled among the pioneers of country music reconcile well with the small, simple hillbilly churches many of those pioneers attended. Both movements were almost exclusively white in the beginning but have always had influential (though underappreciated) interactions and relationships with black, Southern culture. Throughout the history of country music, some of its most successful personalities have had direct relationship with the Churches of Christ (one website claims Loretta Lynn, Don Williams, Randy Travis, and Waylon Jennings to name a few – and I know Dwight Yoakam grew up at the Northland Church of Christ in Columbus, OH where I live).1

2020 seems like a pretty natural year to talk about the idea of vision and looking into the future. Before we get too far looking ahead, though, I think we need to spend time reflecting on our past and provide an honest assessment of our present. Before we consider where we are headed, I think we need to realize where we are now. The Churches of Christ could use our own 16-hour documentary series. We face a lot of the same challenges that country music has. Country music has always been – and will always be in a lot of ways – hillbilly music. In the same way, the Churches of Christ are and will always be a hillbilly religion. And every few decades a Taylor Swift – in the Church of Christ world our Taylor Swift is Max Lucado – comes along and forces to us ask the question anew, “How do they fit into our hillbilly identity?”

Last week I ventured further into the hillbilly world by reading J. D. Vance’s critically acclaimed book, Hillbilly Elegy. As I read J. D.’s story of challenging family dynamics and overcoming the plight of rural America en route to an ivy league law school education, I was again struck by the similarities of my life in the Churches of Christ. Vance’s story of a hillbilly family immigrating to Ohio from the hills of Kentucky sounds like the first-person testimony of almost everyone I’ve ever gone to church with. I don’t know the percentages, but a huge number of the Churches of Christ outside the South are populated by Appalachian hillbilly transplants.

Country Music documents how the music was influenced by Texans like Waylon Jennings and Buck Owens’ Bakersfield Sound from California, but the heart and soul of country always has been Appalachian hillbilly. In the same way, Pepperdine’s Malibu campus and Abilene Christian University have emerged as important institutions in the Churches of Christ, but national gatherings, personalities, and most of the institutional heft of the Churches of Christ are mostly hillbilly people in hillbilly places.

J.D. Vance’s story is truly endearing because he cherishes and embraces the good things his hillbilly upbringing taught him while, at the same time, giving those things the reality check of the corresponding shortcomings of that same culture. The Churches of Christ are in dire need of a similar self-reflection. When I consider the perceived threat that Taylor Swift was to country music, I have seen the same perceived threats facing the Churches of Christ. In the 80s and 90s it was Max Lucado’s rise to prominence in the evangelical world. The last twenty years have seen diversifying church practices that have complicated the question of who is and who isn’t “Church of Christ.” Beneath these, and other, developments, the stubborn concern seems to be a fear of losing the hillbilly legacy.

To be part of a group of churches that have always lacked any kind of national governing body or organizing structure, a local congregation is a critical part of faith identification. Much like the hillbillies wanted to know that it was still “their” music, a lot of members of the Churches of Christ want to know that it is still “their” church. In reflecting on hillbilly culture, Vance writes, “I learned that no single book, or expert, or field could fully explain the problems in modern America. Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith.”2 Because my family doesn’t have hillbilly roots, I often feel like an outsider in the Church of Christ culture. I grew up in northern Ohio and no one in my family was from the South or from the hill. However, everyone in my small childhood church up had a West Virginian lineage. Everyone.

I have met plenty of people who grew up in the Churches of Christ culture who also lacked direct hillbilly lineage, but we are definitely the minority. What Vance’s book helped me realize is that the influence of hillbilly culture in the Churches of Christ is pervasive, complicated, and mostly lies beneath the surface. Vance grew up in a small town between Cincinnati and Dayton – not in Appalachia like his grandparents, but the point of his book is that the culture of Appalachia still directly affects their family. It’s in their bones. I have come to believe the same thing about the Churches of Christ. Hillbilly is in our bones.

Perhaps more than anything, the hillbilly story is best understood against the backdrop of upward mobility. Hillbilly music, just like hillbilly religion, began in mountain shacks and extreme poverty. Of all the things that change along the upward mobility track, perhaps the most dramatic is our vision of what is possible. Country music is now a powerful, cultural institution whose stars make millions of dollars playing in front of arenas and stadiums – a far cry from the front porches of hill country. Look no further than the emergence of Nashville as an “it” city with unimaginable growth to grapple with the cultural manifestation of this. This paradox was addressed decades earlier by the sitcom “The Beverly Hillbillies.” In a lot of ways, the Churches of Christ have become the Beverly Hillbillies of US American Christianity.

In the Churches of Christ, our scholars attend Harvard and Yale. Some of our churches are among the largest in the country. Our megachurch preachers are among the biggest stars in the evangelical cult of personalities. We have countless millionaires, politicians, sports stars and even a national network news anchor among our number. Our universities’ profiles have been elevated nationally by success in sports. One of our missionary doctors was featured as a person of the year by Time magazine in 2014. This is a far cry from the small country churches where a majority of our people originated. We mostly celebrate this upward move, but it doesn’t come without its share of challenges and growing pains.

Our hillbilly roots can keep us humble. They can remind us of the simple life that God calls us to – even amid a growing bank account and public stature. They can keep us focused on the Bible as a trustworthy guide to our lives. They can maintain the important role of the church in our lives as the community of God’s people. They can remind us of what life was like before political clout and cultural influence, and help us wrestle with the way these things negatively influence faith and ministry.

At the same time, they can also hinder us from following God where he is leading us today. As metroplexes continue their rapid growth and culture becomes increasingly secular, hillbilly calls for the “good old days” will be increasingly a foreign language. As technological advances rapidly alter our daily routines and dominate our lives, the simplicity of hillbilly religion may seem desirable, but it is going to be harder to connect with. As our culture continues to diversify in race and religion, our bleak history of racism and lack of diversity must be confronted head-on.

More than anything, it is well past time for us to move beyond concern for what is and what isn’t “Church of Christ.” Johnny Cash, Garth Brooks, and Taylor Swift all proved that their talents and abilities were much too great to be confined to the label of country. As they began producing music that was beyond that label, not only did they broaden the audience for country music, but they also helped further shape the future of what was considered country. Surely, there is a similar mission for the Churches of Christ. While we aren’t making music, we are pursuing mission. My vision for the future of our churches is that we start considering how the gifts God has given us will shape and change the future of the church – reaching new audiences and shaping the future of what is considered Church of Christ into something beauty, amazing, and something our hillbilly forefathers would be proud of.

2 JD Vance, Hillbilly Elegy (New York: Harper, 2016), 144-145.

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