In the midst of meal prep, gift shopping, house cleaning and all the other craziness that fills the holiday season, I try to work in some extra reading time. It’s not always easy, but I’ve seen how important reading is for me to keep perspective during what can be a very busy, very stressful season. This book list encompasses some of my recent social justice reads, all of which would make very good gifts for friends and family as well!
Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance
“Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends and family.” With these words, JD Vance takes us deep into a region of America that is often ignored by mainstream media, ridiculed when noticed, and more often than not, misunderstood. Using his life story of growing up in the Rust Belt as the backbone of the book, Vance brings alive the Ohio and Kentucky regions of his childhood, along with the people that shaped him , and the societal ills that plagued his impoverished community. His story reads like a novel, and even the intertwined commentary never becomes preachy, instead adding a depth of understanding to the narrative.
Part of what makes Vance’s book so compelling is his insight into two very different worlds. His family sprang from a region in Kentucky that simultaneously embraced Americana and community, yet also condoned extreme violence in order to avenge familial honor. He was raised in turns by a mother who was an addict that wanted to improve but never quite could; a mostly absent father, who eventually embraced Christian fundamentalism; as well as a former-alcoholic grandfather and a foul-mouthed grandmother, who provided the stability his parents couldn’t.
Out of this poverty and dysfunction, Vance joined the military and entered on a life trajectory that took him far from his roots. Ending up as a graduate of Yale Law School with a prestigious job, he then inhabited a world that those in his home community could barely imagine and were deeply distrustful of. Vance says that the disconnect between the two world he lives in has caused him to think deeply about questions such as, “Why has no one else from my highschool made it to the Ivy League? Why are people like me so poorly represented in American’s elite institutions? Why did I think that places like Yale and Harvard were so unreachable?” Throughout the book, he explores these questions and seeks to answer them.
And the answers he discovers were fascinating, straddling the ideological line between the Right’s focus on individual responsibility and the Left’s focus on providing social safety nets. Vance finds fault with both positions and instead advocates a middle ground, based on his own experiences and those from his home community. The book makes you think hard about how your own preconceptions and background shape your status in life.
But far from just being a heavy read, there’s also plenty of humor in the way these two different “classes” in America live, interact and respond to each other. From thinking of Cracker Barrel as fine dining to helping a waiter clean up the mess made by his Yale classmates, Vance shows how one perspective isn’t necessarily better than another. And as an aside, I loved his view on PJs. “Pajamas? Poor people don’t wear pajamas. We fall asleep in our underwear or blue jeans. To this day, I find the very notion of pajamas an unnecessary elite indulgence, like caviar or electric ice cube makers.” THIS view could cut down on the laundry in our house!
There’s much more I could say about Hillbilly Elegy, but I’ll summarize with this: if you just read one book about poverty and social inequities in 2017, it should be this book. Highly, highly recommend. As a “teaser trailer,” listen to this Fresh Air interview with JD Vance.
What if you uprooted your family and life from the normal middle-class existence and decided instead to go live among drug addicts, the homeless, the extremely poor? This is exactly the adventure that Craig Greenfield and his wife embarked upon. Subversive Jesus chronicles this journey of trying to live as Jesus lived, reaching out to the broken of this world.
As you can imagine, the Greenfield family had to radically shift their way of life. They chose to live in a community setting, opening their doors to vagrants off the street in order to share a meal and lodging. They did one-on-one rehab work with addicts that wanted to change. They got involved in social justice initiatives. They exposed their children to “dangers” that many in middle class American would be horrified at. And in the midst of it all, they discovered the beauty of the Gospel found in God’s heart for the poor.
“I did not know that in setting out to change the world, I would end up being changed myself. But since my first encounter with the poor, I have found that if I pray for God to move a mountain, I must be prepared to wake up next to a shovel.”
While he definitely encourages Christians to get out of their comfort zones and safe neighborhoods in order to build true relationships with those in poverty, Greenfield is careful not to hold up his family’s lifestyle as the only right way. “We all can find and nurture crossover spaces where our lives and the lives of those on the margins have the opportunity to overlap…we can ask God to give us eyes to see those who are struggling in our midst – including those in our own affludent neighborhoods, at our workplaces or in our schools.”
While in general, I found Subversive Jesus to be a challenging and helpful look at living like Jesus, there were also times where the author was unnecessarily harsh to certain groups (such as rich white men). It seemed as though he was engaging in cliched stereotypes that were unfair at times. I’ll also admit to not always understanding why he took certain stances, and sometimes I felt like he wasn’t fully accurate in how he interpreted Jesus’ teachings, focusing more on the social justice aspect while downplaying the heart of the Gospel message.
Nevertheless, the book is thought-provoking and worth a read. There are far too few examples of this type of “radical” Christianity in this day and age. The Greenfield family provides a refreshing look at what it means to be a Christian in our materialistic, comfort-focused society.
And that’s it for this booklist! Next up will be reviews of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption and Charity Detox: What Charity Would Look Like if We Cared About Results. I highly recommend both of those as well, so if you’re looking for some great books this holiday, check these out too.