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Joy, Ecstasy, Addiction

Invited by my friend and colleague John Barton to join others at Yale University Divinity School this week, I’ve made my way north-easterly. A fine gathering of men and women from around the country, and not a few from outside the country, convening around “Joy and the Good Life.”

Miroslav Volf opened the conference by noting that while there are numerous excellent theologies of love, as well as theologies of peace, there is a dearth of theologies of joy. This is a strange deficiency, given the significance of joy as a key practice and characteristic of Christian life in the New Testament.

Happily, reflection on joy is on the rise. This is not surprising, perhaps, given the corresponding rise of reflection upon virtue, and notions of what it means to live a flourishing life. Discussions of what it means to live a good life inexorably raise sustained consideration of joy.

In other words—as Volf continued—the great question of our time is this:  who are we? The matter of joy is a space in which we seek to provide some answers to this question.

The opening lecture of the conference was a compelling and moving address by Willie James Jennings, formerly of Duke University, now at Yale. So I share here a précis and some reflections upon his lecture:

Joy is a work. Before considering it a feeling or a sentiment, it is to be seen as a work of resistance, a work of resistance against despair and death.

Reflecting out of the African-American experience, Jennings notes the importance of “segregated joy work.” Such work occurs behind the scenes:  in contexts of a larger plenty that is not shared by all, there occurs a “segregated joy work” which seeks to deal with the absurdity of the social reality. The social plenty not shared by all leads to a plenty of despair on the part of those segregated. That plenty of despair is the “currency born of death.”

Joy work begins by denouncing despair. This joy work is often accompanied by “body work,” a dance that triumphs over despair just above the line of surviving. Joy is a decision to do something different with the given, an act of improvisation; it is a decision which refuses to give in to the given.

Such joy is always an oppositional joy: an insistence upon humanizing de-humanizing conditions, a move to make pain productive without justifying it. It is the sort of joy indicated in Hebrews 12:2, in which the text speaks of this Jesus who “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame.” It is a joy which sustained Jesus through his criminalization, isolation, torture, and death: a posture which did not eradicate his conflict, but captured those conditions.

Perhaps most provocative in Jennings’ lecture was this: that joy work always lives close to addiction. Joy work, as already indicated, is acutely aware of despair, the currency of death. Addiction, says Jennings, turns despair into the teacher; addiction calls one to lose oneself in the face of despair, if only for a moment. The “anti-joy work of addiction” seeks its own improvisational move to deal with despair, just as the “work of joy” seeks its own improvisational move in the face of despair. But the former aims for death, while the latter aims for life.

Both the work of joy and the anti-joy work of addiction are seeking ecstasy. Aiming at ecstasy, he contends, is not the problem, is never the problem. We need ecstasy. In seeking ecstasy, both the work of joy and the anti-work of joy take seriously the work of being a creature in need of communion. But joy requires the right sort of entanglements, whereas anti-joy entangles us, hooks us, upon practices which inexorably lead us to death.

Joy thus requires not only the right sort of entanglements, but also a “space of joy.” It requires a geography, a space in which people can meet and repeat their “joy work” and know themselves. A church, a home, a good club—a place and community is required to teach people how to make joy. And also needed is a psychic space, of emotion, fantasy, hope; or a sonic space, such as in music, which can become a womb of joy. Learning to access this joy is a spiritual discipline.

The blues, he contends, have always been a sort of sonic space for accessing this sort of joy: it acknowledges the pain, but points toward a life lived well in the midst of that reality; that joy can be had in the midst of the temptation to despair, without granting the legitimacy of the structures or pain which prompts despair.

Thus we need a pedagogy of sonic space; we need a way to teach and invite us to a shared experience of joy—as opposed to touting our personal theme music in our pockets and ear buds. We need a way to point toward the possibility of a shared vision of joy. We must ask how a shared ecstasy might be sustained without any sort of oppression, without yet another move toward commodification of our joys, resisting the lines of class, gender, and race, breaking down all the walls that exist even yet in our despair.


Cover Photo: By Namkota - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


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