The Gravity of Joy (Angela Williams Gorrell) -- A Review
THE GRAVITY OF JOY: A Story of Being Lost and Found. By Angela Williams Gorrell. Foreword by Miroslav Volf. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2021. Xviii + 238 pages.
Don't let the title of the book, The Gravity of Joy, fool you. This isn't some clap-happy, sentimentalized book that will advise you not to worry, but just be happy. No, this is a book about experiencing joy in the midst of suffering and grief. The stories told by Angela Williams Gorrell are about as real as you will find, and yet she brings to us a word of hope and therefore joy. I expect that once you’ve finished the book you will come away with a very different definition of joy than you took to the book. Dr. Gorrell offers us a theology of joy that is developed in the crucible of deep suffering. The crucible is her own life. Therefore, The Gravity of Joy is a deeply personal book that brings that has its beginnings in a research project in the theology of joy, a project that encounters a series of encounters that include family members who die of opioid addiction, suicide, heart attack at a young age, as well as encounters with inmates at a prison. Together they contribute to the development of this theology of joy that we have the privilege of encountering through this book.
The author of The Gravity of Joy is Angela Williams Gorrell. Having earned her Ph.D. in Practical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, she currently serves as an assistant professor of practical theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary (Baylor University). The roots of the book, however, are to be found in her previous work at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, where she served as a member of a team working on the Theology of Joy and the Good Life project. Besides researching joy, she was called upon to teach a popular class at Yale titled "A Life Worth Living." This class was developed by Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally Linz. I first encountered Dr. Gorrell by reading her previous book Always On: Practicing Faith in a New MediaLandscape, (Baker Academic, 2019), a book that was honored by the Academy of Parish Clergy as the 2020 Book of the Year (I chair the committee that made that selection). This book is equally good and pertinent to our times.
The stories you will read in The Gravity of Joy begin to unfold right at the moment Gorrell was getting ready to teach her first section of the “Life Worth Living” class at Yale. It was just a year after she was hired for this project researching the theology of joy that three family members died in quick succession. This four-week period was, for her, “four weeks of hell.” The first of three deaths in the family involved the suicide of the husband of one of her cousins. The second death involved a nephew who suddenly died of a heart attack while in his early twenties. Finally, still reeling from these two deaths, her father died as a result of an opioid addiction that had stripped away what had been a fulfilling life. All of this took place in December of 2016. She writes of her father, that "chronic pain had changed him from a fun, loving, passionate person into someone holed up in a bedroom addicted to pills" (p. xv). How do you teach a class on a Life Worth Living with all of this impacting your own life?
What Gorrell does here is invite us to consider the nature of joy by bringing the concept into conversation with crises of our day including increased suicides, the opioid addiction crisis, and the realities of mass incarceration and its impact on the lives of those in prison. As she points out in the prologue to the book, her purpose in writing this book is to describe "connections between suicidal thinking, addiction, and despair, and it prescribes joy as the counteragent to despair" (p. xvii). As I’ve noted, she writes from experience, so that her attempt to research joy takes place while her world was falling apart around her. She confesses that it took almost nine months of crying and seven months of therapy to get to the point where she could write this book. It also took a willingness to be vulnerable to the world at large.
The first death in the family came just a week before Christmas when word came that her cousin-in-law, Dustin, had killed himself. This death came not long after she had begun teaching the Life Worth Living course. Then two weeks later, just after Christmas, she received news that her nephew Mason died. This took place not long after Dustin's funeral. Still reeling from all of this, word came that her father was dying of his opioid addiction. She tells us that her father was a prominent attorney in the community where he lived and she grew up. He was, by her description a man who lived his life big, and yet here he was dying of addiction. How do you teach a class in the midst of this, especially one that deals in part with developing a theology of joy?
With the stories of these three deaths as the starting point, Gorrell brings into the conversation other stories about addiction and how it is perceived to be a moral problem. Being a theologian, moral questions are always in view. She shares her struggles with trying to understand her father’s addiction and how it came to be? What was it about him that made him vulnerable? She tells us about his life and the family that both were part of. As she wrestles with her own theological underpinnings and her grief, she also wrestles with despair. So how do you teach about joy when grief has taken hold? While some deaths are more easily explained than others, even this gives one little comfort.
In the aftermath of these deaths and the grief that accompanied them, Gorrell took on a responsibility that would contribute to her healing. That responsibility involved co-leading a Bible study in a women's prison. We get to read stories about the women whom she met. We learn about how they faced feelings of hopelessness, and yet about they found a sense of hope in the community that emerged as they participated in these studies. Gorrell found her own healing and a sense of joy as she got to know these women and their stories. Out of these conversations come opportunities to reflect on mass incarceration, often due to drug issues. She invites us to consider how many people are incarcerated because of "drug offenses" but never get the treatment necessary. Instead, they live lives that at times don't seem worth living, which of course leads to suicides and suicide attempts. During these conversations, Gorrell discovers the importance of community to the experience of joy.
Describing this book is difficult because it is so personal. The context that gives rise to the book is a class on a life worth living and a research project that is supposed to lead to a theology of joy. It would be easy to formulate a theology of joy in the context of a comfortable life, but what happens when your task meets real life? Although many of the stories speak to the tragedies that are encountered live, she weaves together with this thread of joy. Joy isn’t always front and center, but it is always present, tying things together. She writes at one point in the book that "since joy is the 'present experience of God's being and becoming' —a recognition of God, the very manifestation of goodness and meaning—profound rejoicing is possible particularly in suffering" (p. 128).
In many ways, this theology of joy that she was supposed to research, is always present in the stories, but often this presence is subtle. That seems appropriate. Faith is central to the story, but it's not spoken of in a way that glosses over the realities of lives lost and hurt. So, theologically she can speak of joy as "a counteragent to despair because it can be sustained and sustain us, even when standing right next to sorrow." (p. 138). She points out that when it comes to experiencing joy, we can't simply create it, to use her analogy, like we make spaghetti. However, we can do things that will help us prepare to receive joy and recognize it when arrives. Thus, "we all can live postured toward joy, alive to its possibility, even in the unlikeliest of places, even in close proximity to our sorrow, even and most especially in the midst of our suffering" (pp. 169-170). That which obstructs joy includes fear and anger. Because this is true, we must deal with these realities of if joy we are to experience joy amid suffering and grief. As she reminds us, the pathway to joy requires community. We can't find joy by ourselves. The good news is that we can experience lives worth living, and the path to that life requires that we remind each other of this truth. If we remember that joy involves community, this will help rescue people from despair.
In her epilogue to The Gravity of Joy, Gorrell offers guidance regarding suicide, opioid addiction, and prison/justice reform. She speaks to the root causes of despair and invites us to join together in reducing suicide, heal addiction, and change the prison system. There is much work to be done, but there is joy to be found in the midst of this work to which we are called.
I found Angela Williams Gorrell's The Gravity of Joy to be profoundly moving. I believe that it offers a word of hope to many who may think that experiencing joy is an unreachable goal. The truth is, the path to joy that takes place amid suffering, is a path that requires us to walk together with eyes wide open. In his foreword to the book, Miroslav Volf tells of how beloved Gorrell was as the teacher of the “Life Worth Living” class. He writes that “much of their devotion to her had to do with how she herself dealt with the pain she experienced and with the path to joy she found in it” (p. x). I believe that if you take up the book, you will be drawn, as her class was, onto the path rooted in her faith in Christ that ultimately leads to joy. This is truly a book to be read and pondered. Just remember happiness isn’t necessarily the same thing as joy!