Michael Fisher is a muscular twenty-four year old man. As he sits down for the interview, he confesses that “this is probably the first time I’ve left the house without carrying a gun.” He’s been booked on assault charges, even though “I got jumped by two guys from New York…I had to make sure my son was safe, I protect my family” and predicts that “it’s going to be World War III real soon. This country is going downhill. We’ll be in World War III by 2019. I guarantee it.”
It’s become a trend. The chattering classes of American society have decided that “working-class Americans” are the source of political angst, notably in the election of 2016. Here at Modern Reformation, I’ve covered previous attempts by Ben Sasse and Timothy Carney to articulate the alienation and division of today’s culture, both of whom rely upon swaths of statistics to pinpoint problems.
And maybe that’s the problem.
Whereas a premodern understanding of poverty attributed it to providence, fortuna, or fate, we brave modern souls have achieved the higher consciousness: all is revealed in the unending stream of data. Like Pythagoreas, we bask in the glow of numbers, trying to discern the silver metric that can give us the pure heuristic for why America is the way it is. Why do many vote for radical political candidates? Why are our communities fragmenting, circling around tribal links, distrusting all and anesthetizing ourselves to sleep? We seek the answer in the technical mumbo-jumbo of analytics, or if the numbers don’t go our way, we play with them in the lotto.
Into this worship of statistics comes an alternative methodology: oral history. Talking to people. Listening to their sagas of joy and agony. While we shouldn’t pit statistics against orality, a brief jaunt onto the highways of the Internet shows that the tendency of liberals and conservatives alike has been to speak for rather than listen to the cri de coeur of the needy. We prefer to judge on the basis of polls and metrics and ignore the personalized and the particular.
But there may be a new challenger in the race. Jennifer Silva, assistant professor at Indiana University Bloomington, has followed up her 2012 analysis of working-class millennials, Coming Up Short, with another examination of working-class Americans. Where her initial effort used roughly one hundred participants from both Northern and Southern regions, We’re Still Here centers on 108 individuals from a coal mining area in Pennsylvania, which Silva calls Coal Brook.
The flashpoint of her interviews was the presidential election of 2016, with its unique spotlighting of class and ethnic divisions among the population. Silva’s research divides into six chapters, categorized by gender and ethnicity. What does she find? Not the usual stereotypes of working-class citizens of coal country.
She finds one primary strategy for coping with the crises of 2016. For some, the tried-and-true method of self-worth through blaming others is the highest good. Silva interviews men like Michael Fisher and Derek Grant, who have been continually disappointed in their jobs and who are ever-willing to believe conspiracy theories about society’s failure. The failure of the anthracite coal industry in Pennsylvania has led to disconnection, distrust, and disability. One of the lingering images in We’re Still Here is the mockery endured by the author for wearing the “I Voted” sticker on election day. Silva was seen as naïve, still believing in democracy, not recognizing it’s all a con.
Beyond distrust in the state, the family structures and lives of these individuals should compel our weeping. Tales of drug abuse, partner abuse, credit abuse, physical pain and mental stagnation recur throughout the volume.
When read alongside J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, this work illuminates a different district of working-class America. Where Vance argued for the dignity of self-discipline and hard work (quintessentially American virtues and ‘traditional’ values), Silva breathes the air of suffering and trauma, refusing to sideline the sadness of coal towns in favor of individual self-improvement (a la Vance). Yet, not all is bleak in this volume. Whereas Silva’s first monograph identified betrayal as a core tenet of working-class millennials, We’re Still Here builds on the motif of hope of these working-class citizens and the political ends to which their hope is directed.
So, why should Christians take up and read We’re Still Here? Not merely because it challenges notions of bootstrapping your way up the cursus honorum and the idyllic American Dream, but also because it gives a bracing call to show empathy for the forlorn and forgotten. We forget sometimes that the mission of Jesus cuts across strict Pelagian ideals about upward spiritual mobility and the noble innocence of humanity; we do well to recall that Christ embraces the degradation of sinful flesh without losing his holiness—he is touched by the unclean woman in Luke 8:42-48 without himself becoming unclean. We must not be wedded to a mindset that forgets the role of providence in our poverty.
Nonetheless, Jesus isn’t a God who’s merely stuck in our muck. He is the real God-man we need, the worker who is worthy of his wage, the beloved Son sent of the Father. Jesus is both the representative storyteller, the priest who brings our requests to God—and he is the one of whom we bear witness.
Here is a forgotten truth in our day of statistics. I recall one ministerial candidate who could cite demography for days, but demonstrated little knowledge about the Gospel solution to the demonic reign of sin. Such a worship at the regnant god of our day (brute statistical fact) belies an idolatrous trust in our reason, and behind this view lurks the hobgoblin of practicality—what the numbers indicate must be reality.
Silva’s effort flows out of a passionate love for these people, their locale, and their concerns. The Christian church must ask herself: do we have the same love for the particular and the local?
Consider the following: God has a love for the particular. He has a love for hearing your specific cry of your own heart. He is a prayer-hearing and a prayer-answering God, and he delights for us to take refuge in the shadow of his wings. Should we not model our God in the way we listen to the cries of our neighbors?
Silva’s rousing writ summons us to hear the seeds of hope among the ruins of working-class coal country. In this she is to be commended. But in this is no certain hope, no steadfast anchor for our souls. To wit, We’re Still Here should push American believers from comforting narratives about ‘the working-class’, encourage us to bend a listening ear instead of know-it-all diktats about ‘what they need’, and remember that all are poor in the sight of the God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills. Regardless of class, you and I alike need the riches of Jesus Christ, for in him and him alone are the bonds of true unity found. In Christ the unity of one faith, one Lord, and one baptism must bridge the gaps of our selfish cul-de-sacs of self-improvement.
For we are summoned in joy and in unity to sing with the saints and angels from all classes and ranks:
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becamest poor;
Thrones for a manger didst surrender,
Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becomes poor.
John Stovall serves as the pastor of The Rock Presbyterian Church in Stockbridge, GA and is a doctoral candidate in history at the State University of New York, Albany.
 Jennifer Silva, We’re Still Here (Oxford: OUP, 2019) 162.
 A glance at political data aggregators like FiveThirtyEight, the rise of online gambling, standardized test scores in education, and the drive to implement technology in sporting events all signify this impulse.
 Silva, We’re Still Here, 171.
 Surely here is the newness of the new covenant, where the children of a mixed marriage are considered holy (1 Cor 7:14), unlike the intermarriages with Canaanites under the Mosaic economy (Ezra 9).
 Far better than my take is the yeoman’s work of Neil Postman. See his prescient work from the 1990s,Technopoly.