A collection of anecdotes, personal stories, and film illustrations with a dash of Scripture, Drops Like Stars is the fourth publication by the rock-star preacher Rob Bell of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The large, full-color book has very few words for its 140 pages that can be read in under 30 minutes and at $35 that comes very close to a dollar a minute. Bell’s stories represent a wide breadth of backgrounds and cultures. He tells stories featuring Native Americans, the pope, music legends, actors, and at least one story about how some people believed in ancient times.
The stated thesis of the book is an exploration of art and suffering. Through its course it becomes less about art and suffering and much more about the art of suffering. Bell begins by sharing the story of a father whose two sons had wives who were pregnant; one miscarried and one gave birth to a healthy baby. In exploring the ambivalence generated in this sort of polarizing experience, he builds momentum through story after story.
The Art of Suffering
Bell does an excellent job of painting a picture (to use artful language) of human depravity and the broken and damaged state of the world. He vividly describes the pain, suffering, and loss that is so typical as part of the human experience. With story after story he builds to make a serious point, and then allows Catherine of Aragon to make it for him, “None get to God but through trouble.”
At first glance one would think, “Ah! that makes sense.” It does. Trouble drives us to God. Life with all its disappointment and pain can engage our longing for something more. It is the function of the Law of Moses and the Ten Commandments to point out where we have fallen short. But Bell’s point also implies something subtle that runs through the rest of the book: if we “get it” then we can find God.
Here is where we get the one and only glimpse of the cross. He talked about the belief of early Christians in their resurrected Lord and he emphasizes the suffering. “A god who is not somewhere else — remote, detached, distant — but among us, feeling what we feel, aching how we ache.” What an amazing thought! However, the conclusion for the meaning of the suffering of Jesus is not atonement, but instead it is this:
is the cross God’s way of saying,
“I KNOW HOW YOU FEEL”?
Except for a mention at the beginning of the book as the narrator of the story of the Prodigal Son, this is the only time we hear about Jesus in the entire book.
The Art of Ache
From the book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2008) by Haruki Murakami comes Bell’s next point:
It’s precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get a feeling, through this process, of really being alive.
So for Rob Bell, pain is the source of life. He is saying in essence that it is in pain and suffering that we begin to find what it means to be alive. He goes on to describe the art of suffering by first talking about the “art of ache.” He says that ache is universal and that when we experience ache we recognize our limits and begin to understand the limits of others. “Suffering unites.”
Is this not true? In fact it is arguably biblical. Jesus admonishes people for their hopes of an earthly kingdom and he counters there hopes by promising that they will have trouble and that following him will likely elicit even more problems. Jesus challenges his followers to take up their crosses and follow in his footsteps of self-sacrifice. Not the vacation that most of us would sign up for. Yet once again Bell is challenging us to see that our salvation is in the suffering and ache itself. Subtle, but he is still building his case.
Suffering and ache, explains Bell, are the raw materials with which we build our lives. He uses the examples of a block of stone from which Michelangelo fashioned David and a friend of his who can take bars of soap and carve sculptures, changing the block into something beautiful. The lesson: “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” The Apostle Paul is his example and he used 2 Corinthians chapter 6 as his proof text. It is not until you back up to chapter 5 that you see the way that Paul is able to fashion his suffering into something beautiful. Unfortunately Mr. Bell conveniently leaves out Paul’s answer: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17)! In essence, Bell again is subtly making his case that suffering, in and of itself fosters new life, contrary to Paul’s assertion that his new life comes from being in Christ.
Native Americans, when weaving, intentionally create a blemish in their work. They say that it is through this blemish that the spirit enters the work. Rob Bell uses this as an illustration of how suffering invites the Spirit into our lives. Again, this is indeed a biblical notion which Paul talks about extensively in Romans. Paul shares how where sin abounds grace also abounds, yet he warns against sinning in order to receive more grace. Surely we do not want to continue in our suffering to receive grace. Bell’s argument is again a beautiful description of the power of the Law to convict us of sin and to bring to light our need for God. Yet, he still does not offer a viable solution.
The Art of Failure
Bell finally states the solution: the art of failure. He says that each of our mistakes, sins, and wrongs are “an opportunity.” They are opportunities to do better and to work harder to get it right the next time. If we get it wrong the next time, well, we are in luck because that is just another failure (opportunity) to just keep going. “We are going to suffer and it is going to shape us.” What will it shape us into? Is the solution just to keep spinning on the same merry-go-round until we die? Is there nothing else to offer?
Ah, here comes the title of the book. A small boy watching the rain cries out, “Stars, stars, stars.” The rain “drops like stars” just as each drop hits the pavement. So in our suffering, pain, and failures we can know that there is beauty if we really strain to see it. That’s it. That is the best that Rob Bell has to offer.
Drops Like Stars would have us believe that if we work hard enough we can please God. In Bell’s economy we work harder and harder and life gets worse and worse (after all each is an opportunity, right?) so we can learn more and more and then, we die.
Fortunately Rob Bell’s story is not the story of the Bible. As Christians we believe that Christ, the Word of God in human flesh, took on our sin and gave his life for us while we were yet sinners. We know that he paid the debt that we could never pay, however many times we took our mistakes, sin, and wrongs and tried again. We know that we have been justified by that sacrifice and that we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness. It is this historic event that gave Paul the ability to face his pain and humiliation with rejoicing. It is this true story that gives us hope, that all is not in vain.