The Hillbilly Elegy lessons for life
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Can an R-rated movie teach biblical lessons? 


Do me a favor and stick with this blog post to the end. 

Jesus was sharing a final lesson in the upper room when he said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). 

Do you ever hear something so often the profound gets lost in the familiarity? 

Did you skim God’s verse above after reading the familiar words, “I am the vine; you are the branches?” 

Did the last line have its necessary impact? 

Jesus told his disciples, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” 

I watched a movie this past weekend that took me on a thought journey. Those thoughts ended with this one: I wonder how many moments in my life I thought were nothing events will end up being something that mattered in heaven. 

There are Spirit-led moments in our lives when Jesus does something through us. Those are the moments that matter eternally. 

Conversely, there are also moments we think are something but in the end were nothing. (Think of Solomon’s description in Ecclesiastes 1:14: a chasing of the wind.) 

Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing.”


I often teach people that God speaks to his servants who will listen. I use Samuel’s lesson from Eli, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:9 NIV). 

Jim and I watched Hillbilly Elegy and then spent a lot of time discussing what we saw and heard. I even had a conversation with a good friend. 

I need to give all of you a forewarning. The language in the movie is awful, the plot depressing, but the truth profound. I should probably say, “If God calls you to watch this movie, you should.” I know it is not a movie for everyone. This movie was raw, but it was also real. 

Hillbilly Elegy is on Netflix and rated R because of the language and the story itself. Jim and I would normally avoid movies like this one, but we felt like we should see it, and I’m glad we did. 

I was once again reminded that there are millions of people in this country, and in our own cities, who are lost and need a way out of the darkness. Their lives are rated R, but they deserve to know Jesus died for them and wants to bless them with his love and salvation. 

The first lesson learned: Real life can be rated R, and I don’t want to think about that. But, should Christians ignore or avoid difficult truth because of its R rating—or should we pay closer attention? 

There are a lot of passages in Scripture that are rarely taught or preached on Sundays because they seem inappropriate in church. Yet, God made certain to include them in our Bibles. Some of God’s word would be rated R if depicted in a movie, but it is still truth God wanted us to have. God never gave us permission to soften or reword Scripture. 

Some biblical passages would be rated R because God wanted us to know what lost looks like—and to care. 


One of the recurring themes of Hillbilly Elegy is the main character’s need to get away and separate from his “hillbilly” roots. He succeeds in life because he refuses to stay. 

There was a biblical message of truth the author probably didn’t intend. The truth of God’s word is true for the saved and unsaved. Truth is equally proven by the people who don’t believe it as by the people who do. 

Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Every person remains lost until he or she decides to take the way out. It is difficult for Christians who have found their escape to understand why so many choose to remain lost. The movie does a good job explaining that choice. Everyone has to give up some things to choose a better way. 

Christians give up a lot of what the world has to offer when we choose to walk with Christ. Lost people don’t always understand or approve of our choices. A lot of what Christians gain through salvation is received eternally, not now. It is difficult for someone to want a way out if they have to give up what they have grown comfortable with on earth.


Christ wants to do something through our lives. But he can’t produce his fruit in a life that isn’t grafted with his. We can’t remain planted in the world and be grafted onto the vine at the same time. Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches” (John 15:5). 

The second lesson learned: A lot of people are deeply rooted in their own lives. If you have ever tried to dig up a deeply rooted plant or tree, you know it is difficult. But, the people who never get grafted to the vine are not going to survive eternally. Apart from Jesus there is nothing they can do to reach heaven on their own. Apart from Jesus there is nothing we can do to uproot the lost. With Jesus, we can do something to help. 

Jesus desperately cares about those who are rooted in the world and therefore not grafted in him. If we are drawing our strength and motivation from the vine, we will think and act like Christ. We will produce his fruit in our lives. The only chance a person has for eternal life is Jesus. 

Are we as desperate to care about the unsaved as our Lord does? 


I watched a Christmas program Dolly Parton offered this year. She is in her mid-seventies now, and it is evident she has always cared about her roots. Her life has a “hillbilly elegy,” but she escaped some of that life through her music and fame. She always returned, however, because of her roots in God’s truth. She grew up in a family where faith mattered. It is obvious that faith is a high priority at this stage of her life. 

No one watching her show tonight could miss the impact the Lord has made in her life, and her desire to share her faith was evident. She has been a woman who found unbelievable success, but her satisfaction is evident in what she is able to do for the Lord. 

She did a wonderful job allowing Jesus to use her music and words to share his love. She sang a new song she’d just written for these difficult days of 2020. She wanted to share the hope of faith in God’s miracles. She said she wanted to do something to help. 

I think the Lord did that something through her. 


Today we need to be present in the upper room and hear Jesus say, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” We need to believe those words just as much as those first disciples did. If we live attached to the Vine, we will produce the fruit of his Spirit. We will do something instead of nothing, and people around us will have the chance to know Christ. 

What are the something moments of your life? 

If you walk with Jesus, there are more of those times than you realize. 

The third thing I knew after watching that movie was this: Jesus deeply cares about those who are lost. If I’m drawing my priorities from the Vine, I will care too. 

The movie and the Christmas special were reminders that people can easily remain lost unless Christ does something through someone who knows that nothing eternal happens apart from him. 

I need to do a lot more something. 

How about you?