Personal experience drives Baylor expert’s scholarship on joy
The roots of Rev. Dr. Angela Gorrell’s insights into joy and suffering stem in part from a profound dichotomy she experienced in her personal and professional life.
After receiving her doctorate, Gorrell had joined the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, focusing on joy in modern life, when — less than a year into her work — she endured a string of tragedies that claimed the life of three family members, including her father and nephew.
“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,” Gorrell reflects. “But for the next two years, I was at Yale, studying joy amidst profound suffering and grief.”
Now an assistant professor of practical theology at Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Gorrell this spring released her new book, The Gravity of Joy: A Story of Being Lost and Found. She describes it as a theological memoir and a “dialogue back and forth between my experiences and the joy research we did at Yale.” The Gravity of Joy examines joy in a variety of contexts, including deep challenges like addiction and suicide, which her family endured. (Learn more about the book in this Q&A.)
Gorrell’s studies have been featured in other contexts, as well. Last fall, the Houston Chronicle shared her column on how to experience joy amidst the challenges of COVID-19, and her expertise on the intersection of social media, technology and faith has been featured by such outlets as Christianity Today and The Baptist Standard as churches shifted to online formats over the last year.
Amidst it all, Gorrell shares an important distinction between happiness and joy that has proven meaningful in trying times.
“I think I’ve come to understand the difference between joy and happiness in my own life from a theological perspective,” she explains. “Happiness is generally associated with a feeling of pleasure, whereas joy is circumstance agnostic… 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.”
Sic ’em, Rev. Dr. Gorrell!