December 4, 2020

The Gospel For Appalachia II: Can The Culture Change?

I want to talk about the Gospel, but first I’m going to tell some stories. Why I am telling these stories should become plain as we go along, but for those of you who might need a clue at the beginning, these stories are about the difficulty of change here in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky.

Just a few years ago, we graduated twin brothers. They were local students, and had been with us for several years. Local students often reflect the best and the worst of local culture, and these boys generally reflected the best (though they were always ready to fight over the smallest matters of perceived honor, a characteristic of mountain people.) I taught both and found both to be excellent, popular, hard-working students, making almost all “A’s.” Their mother and step-father were very involved in their educations, which is very rare in this part of the world. Both said they wanted to go on to college, and both were certainly capable.

Toward the end of their senior year, they were both offered full-tuition scholarships by Berea College. Berea is one of the most prestigious small liberal arts schools in America, consistently ranking high in USNWR’s rankings. Every student receives a full scholarship, though all students participate in a student work program. Berea College is place of beauty, excellence and appreciation for Appalachian culture. It is a rare and wonderful opportunity, one that can change a student’s life forever.

Those of us who knew the boys immediately began laying odds on whether they would accept the offer, and if they did, if they would succeed in leaving Clay County. This may seem cynical, but I assure you it is simply realistic. Leaving the mountains and going to university or a new job is extremely difficult for local students. I know two families with children who stopped pursuit of advanced degrees at the University of Kentucky to return home to Clay County. One said “the other kids made fun” of the way she talked.

The brothers accepted Berea’s offer. They were back home before Christmas, and have never left. Until recently, they lived in a dilapidated trailer near our school. Their lives show no difference from thousands of other persons who live in the lower reaches of Appalachian poverty. No one would believe that they were once recipients of full scholarships to a prestigious college.

Another story. We were recently discussing awards for some of our students. We were talking about some of our local students when our senior faculty member–with 40 years of service at OBI–mentioned that no local high school boy will ever take home a book from school. This seemed ridiculous, until I began thinking of the local students I knew and had known in the past. Slowly, it dawned on me that he was correct. I could not recall any male high school student from the local area ever taking home a book.

Scarcely had this sunk in when he followed up with another shocker: Many of the local men who had attended our school until recently would drop out in the middle of their senior years. No matter how long they had attended, what grades they made or how important they told you it was to graduate, they would drop out their senior years. He named the fathers of some of our local students who had done exactly that: dropped out just before graduation, not because of illness or tragedy, but simply because the stigma against being educated was so strong in the mountains.

These students didn’t want to appear that they were trying to be “better than” their parents or grandparents. They did not want to appear to be “putting forward” their “book learnin'” over their parents or grandparents. No matter what they heard from us–us being teachers and adults–they were able to go no farther than their culture said was permissible.

There are many other stories of this kind, with the same point. There is within Appalachian culture something that does not change easily. This resistance to change is wide-spread. It stifles efforts to promote education, healthier lifestyles, political reform and economic development. It allows many who grow up and live here to accept what other Americans would find difficult or impossible to accept.

This resistance to change runs directly into the matter of identity. The Appalachian person is deeply affected by the issue of personal identity. He/she does not feel that he/she is like other people. There is a sense of isolation. The most obvious response to the question of identity is to never leave Appalachia, and to not change while you are here.

There is much good about a general conservatism in culture. I do not like the homogenization of culture that is sweeping the world. It seems that the worst of humanity’s characteristics and habits spread the easiest and the farthest. I am glad to live in a region where “old-fashioned” values are respected and change is not assumed to be always good.

But there is a back side, a backward and perverse reverse aspect, to this cultural conservatism. It is everywhere in Appalachia. It is stubbornly committed to much that is harmful, destructive, hurtful and painful. When outsiders, or politicians, or educated experts challenge this conservatism with the need to change for the sake of children, or the good of the community or in order to secure the blessings of economic development, the response is a stony embracing of past traditions and behaviors, many of them antithetical to the blessings of good choices and intelligent progress.

This cultural backwardness lies at the heart of the Appalachian experience. Those of us who live and minister here are constantly aware of it. When we wonder why there are no good restaurants in our community, or we look for good jobs for our children or we seek out goods and services that others have nearby, we quickly become aware that we live in a place that is different. The highest insurance rates in America, the highest levels of family poverty, the lowest educational performance: these are simply normal for this culture.

For example, there are no large factories in our community, and few small manufacturing operations. Unemployment among adults is very high. The illegal economy is large and the contribution of welfare is massive. Poverty is visible and commonplace. There are thousands of people needing jobs, and thousands of people willing to work. Where are the factories?

The simple fact is that employers fear what they know is awaiting them in this culture. There is a wide-spread resistance to a consistent work ethic. There is the knowledge of the illiteracy and instability of the work force. The values of Appalachia say that a grown man who works for another man could be making more money another way, and doing what he wants to do with his own time. Heath insurance and liability are frightening matters for an employer to contemplate in a business here.

Several years ago the federal government built two large federal prisons in our county. The prisons employs many people, but a substantial number of them come from outside our community. The prison has been a tremendous economic boon, but it is not a business. It is a government subsidy. It gives us a glimpse of what could happen and how our community could change with good jobs and economic development. But until Appalachian culture in our county changes, there will be few, if any, factories, and economic development is almost nonexistent.

The same story could be told about education, health care, crime, the abuse of children and women, the general economy, the abuse of welfare and on and on. Appalachian culture has proven resolutely resistant to the intentions of thousands to change it.

For me, this is a question of spiritual realities, and not simply social or economic ones. At the heart of this is the message of the church and the power of the Gospel. Appalachia is a religious contradiction. Religion is everywhere. Churches are everywhere. But on any given Sunday, only a tiny portion of the population is in church. Grandmothers and good women are in church, but few men. Church represents much more than it actually delivers.

Religion in Appalachia is devout, and it stands at the center of the culture. Its message is everywhere. No matter what the sign out front, most churches have the same message: Life is a battle between God and the devil. Hard times are to be expected. The Good Book and the good Lord are there for those who are believers. Satan, drugs and alcohol are there for the sinner. When a person comes to understand that death is near, and heaven is our only hope for happiness, then he will get saved. He will get right with God.

It is a message of moral change and moral choice. It is not the reformation Gospel, and Jesus is not at the center of the message. The Ten Commandments and gospel music are heard far more than the Biblical story. The number of ministers who seem to know nothing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is substantial.

The radio and television stations in our community are full of preachers and singers preaching this message. Get right with God. Get saved. Live right. It’s your only hope of freedom from the devil and life beyond this vale of tears. Be godly like grandma and grandpa.

I can’t imagine that many people who live in Appalachia have not heard that message hundreds of times. Religion so saturates the mountains that everyone knows what the preacher is going to say when he comes to talk to them.

But this is religion without the power to change the deepest values of the people who embrace it. If this kind of religion could change people, Appalachia would be changed profoundly. Instead, religion is part of the matrix that produces and protects the distinctive culture around me. There are thousands of my Clay County neighbors who embrace the message of the mountain preachers, but who never experience any change in their attitude toward work, welfare, education or their community. The religious message of these churches somehow manages to leave people where they are–confident of heaven, aware of the devil, but unable to change their families or their communities. For them, God is a God committed to the Appalachian way of life.

There are exceptions. There are brave pastors in our community who tirelessly preach Christ and prophetically challenge the values of the community. They involve themselves in efforts to bring help and economic investment to Clay county, but they are a brave few. I know many Christians who truly want this community to change, but at the end of the day they only see the rock move a little. Very little.

Would the Gospel change Clay County? The question is deeper: Does the Gospel change cultures or does it leave them as they are? If people are suspicious of education and fearful of “book learnin'” does the Gospel change their minds and hearts? Does it make a man who believes his money should go to four wheelers change and spend his money on his family? Does it make a man want to move out of a shack and into a house?

Does the Gospel replace the authority of culture, deeply ingrained social boundaries and the expectations of family patriarchs and matriarchs? Does it cause us to question the way we live, and the things we’ve always believed? Does it give us a new identity that can go to college and not come home at Christmas because someone laughed at our accent?

My community needs the Gospel. It does not need religion, preachers or churches that reinforce the status quo. This community and this culture, so quaintly religious, needs to be Gospel-ly revolutionized, turned upside down and deconstructed.

Is anyone looking for that revolution? Could it come? In this place that needs Christians to serve, is there hope for something culture-shaking and culture-changing?

In my next post, I will explore that question.


  1. I’m enjoying your series. I grew up in southeastern Kentucky (Whitley County), and saw many of the things you write about. My father worked in strip mining, construction, and whatever else he could find to keep food on the table. I was always reading, eager to learn, and mercilessly teased because of it.

    Dad learned a trade, and when I was 15, moved us all to Texas. To this day, there are family members back in KY who think Dad (and by extension, the rest of us) were too “uppity” (one of the kinder words)for leaving for greener pastures.

    It’s sad to see that is still going on even now. I haven’t been back since my grandma’s funeral 10 years ago. I would love to visit, but would I stay? I don’t know.

  2. Is anyone looking for that revolution? Could it come? In this place that needs Christians to serve, is there hope for something culture-shaking and culture-changing?

    Yes I’m looking for that revolution. I hoping to shake things up for my family and I’m very attracted to Catholic Christian culture.

  3. It would seem that not much has changed since LBJ’s “war on poverty” began there 40 years ago. One of the downfalls to a closed culture like that is the continuing dysfunctionality that is perpetuated throughout successive generations. Much like the closed Canaanite culture of the OT, such societies often corrupt themselves from within. Thus, it does not surprise me at all the things you’ve described with regard to lack of rampant lack of education, empty religion, drug/alcohol abuse, etc. When there are never any new people coming in or existing people going out how do the bad aspects of the culture ever get filtered out? When is there ever a chance for new and positive influences to emerge within the culture?

    My friend’s parents were social workers who moved to this area of the country 40 years ago. They were idealistic liberals who believed that because of the money being pumped into this area from the government’s war on poverty, it would be the cornerstone of great changes that would influence this part of the world for good. Of course, the war of poverty has been of no consequence. Real change only comes from within. Perhaps the gospel message might actually make a real difference in the lives of this culture.

  4. I definitely see this trend in Appalachia, but as I read the post, it dawned on me that this type of religious culture was what I was raised on. Be good. Go to VBS and learn your Bible stories. Sing the SBC hymnal, but only the good southern songs. When you realize you need to ‘get saved’, walk an aisle, and then keep coming to church until you die. If you’re a really good Christian, volunteer to teach children. Sadly, the few instances of a passionate relationship with Jesus I can remember from my childhood are an old woman who tirelessly taught children’s church by herself because no one else would touch children during the church service, and a deacon who truly felt that Christian men were lacking in the church, and knew raising Godly boys was the answer. Where are the cries for repentence, the call for a passionate pursuit of God that has inspired so many?

    This seems to be something I simply don’t understand. Do any of you know why the Christian church had a flow of amazing missionaries ready to die for the gospel until about 1940, and them it stopped until recently? What happened to 50 years?

  5. Michael,

    I grew up in Letcher County so I know what you are talking about. Remember Harry Caudill’s “Night Comes to the Cumberlands”? His efforts seemed to backfire instead of having the desired affect.

    I feel as if I can speak for all the Appalachian people and be one with them yet still be able to take an outsiders view because I haven’t lived in the culture since 1979. Harry Caudill, even though he is a cousin of mine and one of “us”, spoke as if he had no real connection to Appalachian people. Nobody wants to be “helped” by those who look down on them. It will take someone who grew up there and knows the people and their families to convince them that there are better ways of doing things. I think a lot of the problems you are seeing today are happening because the people were given charity or good paying jobs in a coal mine before the education system was in place with good teachers to teach them how to use their wealth. Welfare takes away your self respect. I believe only those with REAL mental or physical incapacities should be handed a free living.

    A love of reading should be instilled in the children early on. Start them out on books about people in their situations. Encourage them to write stories early and share them with their peers. Then graudally move on to new cultures and new ideas. But don’t ever try to tell them that their God is not real or only one of many. I have always closed my ears to people who seem to want to change my faith.

    Too much TV watching makes the kids think life is better somewhere else but the minute they are able to get outside their comfort zone they find that the world finds them too odd. Just the speech and accent gives the “dumb hillbilly” label before they can prove otherwise.

    I think you are wrong about why there are so many senior dropouts. It’s not so much being afraid to “get above your raisin” as it is just getting trapped by the responsibility of owning a car or falling in love and wanting to raise a family. I don’t know why that urge seems to come earlier to Appalchian teens. Bordom, not enough other things to do, or maybe just tradition?

    Adults as well as children in Appalachia need some structured social time with each other. I know people have tried to do this before but if the young people could be taught to work together building things (like Habitat For Humanity) repairing homes or making things together (quilts, jewelry, or clothing) to give to those who need them it would keep them off the fourwheelers and out of crackhouses.

    The people who teach the new skills and household health, cleanliness, and personal pride should be their regular school teachers or pastors not someone shipped in from New York or LA with obvious reformation in mind. That sense of community in Appalachia will make them circle the wagons to shut out outside influences,

  6. While my father and his brothers and their cousins were serving in Korea, my grandfather and his two brothers left the women and other children with family in Clay and Harlan counties and worked their way to Cincinnati, Hamitlton, Dayton and eventually settled in Richmond IN. They got jobs in the factories (There’s a saying that a Hoosier is just a hillbilly who ran out of money on his way to work in the auto plants in Detroit.) as did my father and uncles when they were discharged from the service. There was actually a lot of immigration from Appalachia into the factories of Ohio, Indiana and Michigan during that postwar manufacturing boom of the 50s and 60s.

    Although I and my siblings were born in IN, a number of my highschool friends had been born in Clay county as their families had moved north later than mine. We were all Southern Baptists or Pentecostals. They are all still there in IN, working in the factories that are left, or the postal service, driving OTR or whatever, my cousins included.

    I got one of those full scholarships to a prestigious Quaker college. I almost didn’t make it through the first year. A third of the students came from private schools, many of those from the those excellent Quaker boarding schools on the Eastcoast. I talked funny compared to them. They were raised with nannies and “au pairs”, had been to Europe, usually more than once, and compared to me, had all the money in the world. I realize now that it was the grace of God that I stuck it out, and in four years changed into a different person my cousins and old friends didn’t know any longer. I learned to talk like I was from “the Mainline” in Philadelphia and spent my junior year in universities in Berlin and Vienna (the ones in Europe) and learned to discuss politics, literature, history, philosophy and religion.

    I graduated and moved to NYC. I admit I wanted the polar opposite of what I grew up in. I know that my parents are proud of me, as are my factory-worker brothers. My extended family treats me like I’m from a different planet, even though I spent my childhood summers playing baseball and catching fireflies (lightning bugs, as we called them)in our grandfather’s front yard as he sat on the porch smoking cigarettes and listening to the Cincinnati Reds on radio and my grandmother cracked beans or quilted. I have never tried to impress them with my “book learnin'” or my ability to advise my family on finacial matters, although this is where my expertise lies. We still find it hard to talk to each other.

    I’ve often thought of what I could do back in KY to help, but your essays have only pointed out what I have often thought was the truth: The people who share my heritage back in Appalachia don’t share my attitude toward education, knowledge and the obligation to improve one’s self to the extent that that’s possible with one’s Gog-given abilities and opportunites.

    I now find myself a member of a Bible-believing Baptist church in a very unGodly city, sharing the Gospel with homosexuals who feel that gay sex is a God-given right, investment bankers who think that achieving great wealth at the expense of others is a God-given right, artists who think that putting an up-side-down crucifix in a plexiglass box of their own urine is a God-given right, and the list of unGodly, self-indulgent, God-given rights goes on and on in this most self-indulgent of cities. For some reason I can relate to these people more than I can my own kin when we gather on Chistmas Eve.

    I go back to IN seven times a year to help my mom and dad as they get older, and I help out with the heating bill that’s twice what it was last year. When I was struggling with my self identity that first year in college, someone told my that somehow I was going to have to find a way to live with each foot in a very different world than the other. Your essays have reminded my of just how different those two worlds really are.

    Sorry this note is not well written. I read you regularly but just saw your Appalachian essays this morning when I arrived at work and needed to comment while trying to do right by my employer.

    Please continue to preach Jesus. He’s the only real hope have in anything.

  7. mort_chien says

    Not being from Appalachia does not mean one cannot understand the problem. The outside appearances may be different but the resistance to change is just as real in middle class midwestern Christianity. All the churches I have been in (6 in 32 years since conversion) have had unwritten but vigorously enforced sub-cultures: with both their good and bad points.

    I appreciated your response to an earlier question about bi-vocational vs. full time pastoring. It would seem that a strong financial disinsentive exists with regard to preaching “outside of the box” as it is locally understood. A full time pastor can quickly find himself out of a job trying to be faithful to Christ. There is some independence (of a good kind) with bivocational support that may help those few brave souls who strive to present everyman complete in Christ.

    Would you mind clarifying (privately if you feel it is necessary) just what you mean when you refer to preachers who preach the 10 commandments and avoidance of a few socially unacceptable sins instead of Christ. Having read your posts, I am pretty sure you would insist on the necessity of a changed life as evidence of conversion. The work of the Holy Spirit in progressive sanctification would require speaking of many things including sin and the the decalogue. Obviously the source of the power and the motivation for change can be quite different.

    I do not wish to pick a fight – just trying to learn who change works in my life and in the lives of those I have input in.