I wrote Telling the Treasure as my Master’s thesis project in partial fulfillment of the requirements for my Master of Arts degree in Theology and the Arts at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Below is a synopsis, the introduction to the book, and a link to Lulu.com where you can buy Telling the Treasure.

Telling the Treasure: Reflections, Essays, and Anecdotes from a Backslidden Mystic
By Joy Netanya Thompson


Some people joke that “Fuller Seminary” could just as easily be called “Fuller Cemetery,” for all those whose faith has shriveled up and died during their time here. Indeed, Joy Netanya Thompson arrived at Fuller in the fall of 2009, “on fire for God,” as those in her Pentecostal tradition might say, only to find a smoldering wick as she approaches graduation. After two plus years of the deconstruction, skepticism, and even cynicism that are part and parcel with seminary education, Joy wrestles with the charismatic and even mystical faith that she lost. In these essays, she explores her past mystical experiences, the streams that fed into her spirituality—from family tragedy to prophetic raps—and how she might recover from a dark season of doubt.

Telling the Treasure is a reflective and transparent story of the cycle of seeking, finding, losing, and seeking all over again.


Being born into the Pentecostal church is a bit like being born into the rabbit hole Alice fell down—a wonderland, to be sure, but also a bizarre world full of unpredictable characters, ridiculous rules, and bewildering ritual. For me, though, this rabbit hole was home. The strange sound of speaking in tongues, the sight of women dancing jubilantly in their stocking feet in the church aisles, the feel of goose bumps raised at a prophecy fulfilled—all were familiar in their mystery.

I had no idea, back then, that the Pentecostal church was more or less the redheaded stepchild of the Protestant family (at least in Western, more intellectually-minded circles). In my first quarter at Fuller this realization slowly trickled over me, fed in part by one professor’s impersonation of Pentecostals (“buahhh!” she would shout, comically tilting her head back with eyes closed and hands waving spastically above), and by other small hints of condescension I picked up in class discussion and even casual conversations with fellow students. It was news to me that Pentecostals were apparently famous for their anti-intellectualism—or, less euphemistically, their low intelligence—and those outside of our circle did not look on our charismatic practices with mild curiosity, as I once thought, but rather baffled distaste.

Bolting all my beliefs to the ground is not why I came to seminary; I came to learn and to be enriched and to expand my spiritual and intellectual horizons. So I opened up my long-held faith tradition to examination and critique, which resulted in a perhaps inevitable season of spiritual dryness and doubt. A somewhat surprising result of my studies was the discovery that many of the practices I had either grown up with or independently cultivated in my meandering spiritual journey were activities that might fall into the category of “mysticism.”

Now, mysticism is a sticky and precarious term, but it is one that I use intentionally in these pages. In his book on Christian spirituality, Alister McGrath identifies three common uses of the word, all of which are quite different. Mysticism can mean to some an approach emphasizing the relational, spiritual, and experiential aspects of the Christian faith over against the cognitive or intellectual ones. Or, mysticism may denote a religious or non-religious approach to spirituality that firmly rejects any cognitive approaches, only valuing the inner experience. The other way the term is used is to refer to specific schools of Christian spirituality, such as the German or English mystics.

I’d say my values and my experiences fall in line with McGrath’s first definition of mysticism—a steady belief that my experiences with a relational God are more valuable and more transformative than any doctrine to which I may ascend. Unlike McGrath, however, I do not prefer to use the word’s milder cousin, spirituality or spiritual, because these terms seem like they could just as easily be found in Oprah’s description of eating a particularly good crab cake as in a report of a divine encounter with the God who made the worlds (although, perhaps, eating the crab cake could be such an encounter for some).

As I delved further into the study of mysticism—partly in an effort to find out whether I belonged in that camp—naturally I read some of the writings of Evelyn Underhill, the definitive voice on the subject. Some of her words rang clear and true in my soul: “the desire to know, in the deepest, fullest, closest sense, the thing adored,” for instance, could well describe my feeling toward God. But the mystical ideal of escaping the prison of the senses simply doesn’t work for me. I find God uses the sensual world around us—from the rich purple flesh of the fig to the intoxicating scent of a tiny jasmine blossom to the urgent scuttle of a spider—to teach us about himself and to draw near to us in an ineffable way.

As I studied, I wasn’t sure where I fit on the spectrum of mystical spirituality, but I decided it doesn’t matter. One thing I learned at Fuller is that theological, academic argument is not my strong suit. However, I do know my way around words—that’s the only thing that saved my papers’ grades—and I thought that instead of figuring out my spirituality so I could lay it down in bite-size, propositional points, I would spin my words into stories, like straw into gold. Here I offer snapshots of my journey out of the rabbit hole of my Pentecostal tradition and into the great wide world of doubt and deconstruction, and I hope as I share these tales I will find my way—not home, necessarily, but out of this limbo land.

Throughout writing this book, as I’ve mined my memories and journals and the stuff at the very core of my soul, I have realized that my growing up in an extraordinary (if sometimes bizarre) world of miracles and dreams, healings and tongues, blind faith and visions, has been to me an utter gift. And so I open up this gift to you, this treasure chest of prophecies and people and mystical moments, so you and I both may sift our fingers through the gold and the precious stones of our stories and thank the Maker of it all.

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