The Gravity of Joy
A Story of Being Lost and Found
- ISBN: 9780802877949
- Published By: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
- Published: March 2021
Shortly after starting a new research position on the Theology of Joy and the Good Life project at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, Angela Gorrell found herself upended by unimaginable, unexpected, all-consuming grief. Within four weeks, Gorrell lost three family members to suicide, long-term opioid abuse, and cardiac arrest, respectively. The Gravity of Joy: A Story of Being Lost and Found chronicles Gorrell’s journey of grief, despair, and the in-breaking of joy amidst it all.
The book opens with a foreword by Miroslav Volf, founder and director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, in addition to a note and prologue by Gorrell. Similarly, its nine chapters are followed by an informational epilogue, a selection of personal “gratitudes” from Gorrell to her support system, and an extensive notes section for further reading. Each chapter begins with an epigraph that skillfully signals its subject and tone. Gorrell engages “research, Christian theology, critical and theological reflection on lived experience,” and journalistic inquiry in her pursuit of meaning-making (xii). Merging personal memoir and academic expertise, Gorrell’s writing emphatically and emotionally embodies her project: “to consider joy as a counteragent to America’s crisis of despair” (xii).
The Gravity of Joy broadly addresses America’s mental health crisis, homing in explicitly on opioid and fentanyl addiction, rising suicide rates, and the impact of mass incarceration. At the heart of these ailments lies an alarming commonality—isolation. Throughout the book, Gorrell vulnerably recalls the profound loneliness of her own sorrow, detailing the anger, pain, and inexplicability of grief. Likewise, she shares the stories of many others who have been silenced while seeking outlets for their suffering. “The diagnosis of despair,” Gorrell contends, “is something that requires a groundswell of people to confront and heal, with God’s help” (xvii). Isolation leads to desolation. The only viable path forward is through community.
While many contemporary Christian writers call for community as an antidote to the world’s ailments, Gorrell charts a new path by offering practical examples and tying them back to the concept of true joy. Joy, Gorrell declares, “is an experience of connectedness to others, to God, and to meaning that both roots us and transcends us, so it is both orienting and disorienting” (96). Though “joy will always find us,” we have agency in our reception of it and in our willingness to accept it (131). According to Gorrell, joy is a deeply “communal task” that arises when we practice “faithful presence” (175, 74). This practice can be simplified to two elements: “withness and witness” (141–143).
Stressing the importance of “withness and witness,” she writes, “telling stories about communal suffering helps us to remember that we can view the overcoming of suffering as a communal task rather than as a task we must pursue alone” (145). Holding space for storytelling and inviting others to rejoice, lament, and grieve openly are simultaneously the privileges and responsibilities of Christian communities (145, 174). The Gravity of Joy exemplifies these practices. Gorrell’s commitment to the restoration of community and right relationship is woven into each shared story. Notably, the book’s epilogue includes practical resources for mental health crises and addiction, brief histories and further reading on the opioid crisis and mass incarceration, and a call to action for its readers to work towards meaningful change.
The Gravity of Joy invites readers into the personal grief of Gorrell and countless others. Her candid recollections protesting the oft-empty platitudes and promises of church folk rank the book among other widely received projects, such as Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason (Random House 2019). This stylistic, unguarded (yet informed) storytelling makes Gorrell’s book a valuable resource for anyone, laity and clergy alike, looking to learn more about pastoral care. Especially in our current moment of navigating the collective isolation and ambiguous grief brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, The Gravity of Joy offers abundant wisdom for any and all.
Brooke M. Foster is a program coordinator for the Polaris Young Adult Leadership Network at Princeton Theological Seminary.Brooke M. FosterDate Of Review:January 10, 2023