Q&A with Dr. Angela Gorrell on The Gravity of Joy

October 8, 2020
Gorrell and The Gravity of Joy

Rev. Angela Gorrell, PhD, assistant professor of practical theology at Baylor University’s Truett Seminary, recently completed her newest book, The Gravity of Joy: A Story of Being Lost and Found. In this Q&A, Dr. Gorrell offers a glimpse into the research and stories behind the book and gives readers a hint of what they might expect from this publication.

What inspired you to write The Gravity of Joy?

I was finishing up my PhD work at Fuller Seminary when I received an invitation to apply for a job at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture to study joy and visions of the good life in contemporary society. I thought, “Wow! What a job description, what an incredible opportunity.” I was offered the job a few months later, and I had this sense that, for the first time in many years, I was going to be able to take a deep breath and enjoy the beautiful life of an Ivy League scholar studying joy.

Nine months into it, however, one of my family members died by suicide. For a number of reasons, my husband and I became the people that my family called upon during this time to help arrange the funeral and walk alongside our family members. We became kind of the pastors of my family. Then, two weeks later, my nephew died suddenly from cardiac arrest at 22 years old. My nephew’s funeral was on a Saturday, and on the following Thursday, my dad died after 12 years of opioid use. I spent the last five hours of his life with him.

To speak at three family members’ funerals in about four and a half weeks’ time is something that takes, I think, a lifetime to really work through. But for the next two years, I just found myself in the midst of profound, profound grief. I was at Yale, studying joy, amidst profound suffering and grief.

About a year and a half later, I became a chaplain at a women’s maximum-security prison, and I happened to be assigned to the one building at the prison where there are people on suicide watch. In that prison, every Wednesday night, my personal experiences with suicide and addiction, my family’s and my own experiences of suffering, my research on joy, the ministry that I was doing, and my own faith (and doubt) collided. This book is the result of that collision.

Who do you think will appreciate reading the book?

I think anyone who has experienced significant loss and wants to know, Is there joy on the other side? Is there hope? or who wants to feel understood in the midst of loss and wants to feel like they are not alone in that experience will appreciate the book. This book is written to anyone who has experienced grief and suffering. This book is written for people who want to understand joy in a deeper way.

The book is definitely more memoir than anything. It’s my story, but it’s also practical theology because it’s my story’s conversation with the joy research that we did at Yale. Basically, there’s this dialogue back and forth between my experiences and the joy research that undergirds the book. There are no footnotes or little numbers in the book because I wanted it to really have the feel of actually reading about people’s lives. But at the very end of the book, there are endnotes, and you can discern where they go by looking at the page number and the first three words of the sentence that the endnote applies to.

So it’s all undergirded by research, but it really is a memoir. It also is the story of other people’s lives from my perspective. I interviewed several people for the book. I interviewed three people who had lost loved ones to suicide or opioid overdose. I interviewed someone who is in recovery from extensive addiction and suicidal thinking. I interviewed people who work with people who are in recovery. Many of my family members are implicated in the book. And then I tell the stories of the women in prison that I met. I protect the womens’ identities and the identities of others who asked me to do so to the best of my ability.

There are also a lot of biblical reflections in the book. I try to bring up characters in the Bible just like I bring up other characters in the book. I try to make it very casual. I want people to feel like the stories of these characters in the Bible are told alongside these contemporary stories because I think that’s how we’re supposed to interact with the Bible anyway. I want you to feel like you know the biblical characters like you know my sisters or another character in the book.

Tell us more about your research on joy at Yale.

The Yale Center for Faith and Culture submitted a grant proposal to the John Templeton Foundation, and they received $4.2 million to try to understand more deeply joy and contemporary visions of the good life over the course of about three years. Each of the scholars at the Center for Faith and Culture took up particular questions related to these subjects in our own research and writing.

We had a personal research agenda that was attending to some of the questions that were in the proposal, but the majority of our work was spent bringing scholars together from around the world. We tried to find the best and brightest and most committed scholars, both emerging scholars and senior scholars, from different institutions and different disciplines. Over the course of three years, we brought 239 scholars from over 140 institutions together. Basically, we wanted to develop the study of joy across multiple disciplines. And we did! I used a lot of the consultation papers and conversation that we had at Yale to inform my book.

Can you give us a small sample of what you have learned about joy through this project?

I think I’ve come to understand the difference between joy and happiness in my own life from a theological perspective. To me, personally as a theologian, happiness is generally an assessment of the conditions or circumstances in our lives. We look around at what’s happening to us and how things are going. We say, Life is going pretty good. I feel happy.

Happiness is generally associated with a feeling of pleasure, whereas joy is circumstance agnostic. Things could be going really well, or things could be going really poorly, and joy can still reside in that space. Joy can breathe the same pungent air as grief. Joy can reside where suffering is, whereas happiness can’t really do that. Joy is able to live in close proximity to sorrow and suffering. Joy has grit. Joy is not naive. Joy doesn’t ignore the circumstances of our lives. It doesn’t say, Oh I’m going to pretend like my suffering doesn’t exist. As theologian Wille Jennings has said, “Joy is a work of resistance against despair.”

In the book I say joy is the recognition of and the connection we feel to meaning, beauty, goodness, or other people. So, even in the midst of suffering, we can recognize and feel connected to meaning, beauty, goodness, or other people. And that’s why joy can be present in the midst of suffering.

Is there anything else you want people to know about your book?

I hope all of the faith leaders, and really all Christians, who read this book will think about how we, as Christians, can respond to topics like mass incarceration, suicide, and opioids in meaningful ways. And then I hope that they will be people who nurture spaces of joy, who help people think about how to have a deeper understanding of joy, and how to welcome joy into their lives and to give each other permission to give ourselves over to it.

The Gravity of Joy will be released March 9, 2021 and is now available for pre-order.

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George W. Truett Theological Seminary