‘Drops Like Stars’ and the Ever-Elusive Message of Rob Bell

Drops Like Stars Rob Bell

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.

There’s More

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.

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About Aaron Gardner

Aaron is a counselor and student of the Bible, passionate about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. He lives in central Indiana with his wife, one-year-old son and their two dogs. View all posts by Aaron Gardner

28 responses to “‘Drops Like Stars’ and the Ever-Elusive Message of Rob Bell

  • pedleyj

    I read with dismay this post and your previous post on Rob Bell. Is this kind of preaching widespread in mega-churches or his Rob Bell a one of a kind ‘heretic’. I’m surprised he didn’t use James 1:2-4 as an argument too, without reading the rest of the book:

    Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

    I wish I could earn $35 a book for that!

  • henryfrueh

    Rob Bell is a gifted thinker and a creative communicator. However his ministry is completely shrouded in intellectual and metaphorical linguistic imagery and the simple gospel seems to elude him. Even those who support him, when presented with questions of his gospel beliefs and his Christology, have to search the archives in order to come up with some ambiguous language.

    You would be hard pressed to find one sermon or one creed of Bell’s that clearly articulates an orthodox view of soteriology. And tethered to that, when you read the menu of preachers he has had fill his pulpit, you will find men and women who were much more open in their heresy.

    I think a more applicable title for Bell’s book would be “Doctrinally Dancing with the Stars”.

  • henryfrueh

    If anyone is interested in genuinely evaluating the message and beliefs of Rob Bell, read this message from Shane Hipps who spoke at Bell’s church.

    http://apprising.org/2009/09/shane-hipps-exposed/

    The message is a treatise in Eastern mysticism that circumvents Jesus Christ. It is amazingly open.

  • pastorboy

    Aaron, great commentary.

    Bell has no good news in this book. Oprah can say I know how you feel. This is just another example of Christ-less Christianity.

    It is no wonder Rob and his compatriots desire to build their version of the kingdom of god on earth, because, like the books he has published and the sermons I have heard, they want their god, not the God of the Bible.

  • Wes Ellis

    Wow… are we reading the same book? You got something very different out of Bell’s book than I did. I was filled with hope as I read and I understood more and more the raw reality of our mutuality and what Paul may have meant when he used the term, “in Christ.” Nevertheless, kudos to you for thinking critically…

  • Evan

    I was recently at one of the tour events for this book, and I have to say that I took away something COMPLETELY different from the time. Rob was trying to show how God uses suffering to shape our lives…to help us grow…to bring out the beautiful sculpture within. I’m sorry that you came away with such a negative experience.

  • Aaron

    Speaking about God does not mean that we are speaking about the God of the Bible. Rob Bell presents an alternative gospel, which is not biblical. When he talks about finding beauty in our suffering, it is more Buddhist than it is Christian. Christ offers us victory over that suffering by taking on his imputed righteousness.

    We do not find God in our suffering, but we see our need for God in our sin. Bell does not like to convict people of sin, because it is not popular, but he does challenge people to work hard enough to see God. God comes to us, and Jesus gives us the way out… this is not what Rob Bell preaches!

    As Henry points out, if we simply look at what those who Bell allows to stand in his pulpit believe, there are very subtle and yet very dangerous issues with his perspectives.

    I would highly recommend you read “Christless Christianity” by Dr. Michael Horton to see what he says is the problem with this kind of alternative gospel message.

  • TitforTat

    Bell does not like to convict people of sin, because it is not popular(Aaron)

    Did you ever think that maybe Bell is being a “real” Christian and lets God do the convicting? Most of the problems with so called Christians is that they think they know who needs to be convicted and who doesnt. Keep up the good work.

  • Aaron

    @ TitforTat … thanks for commenting! Good to hear from a new voice 🙂

    True that God would do the convicting, but we are to bring the Word of God so that it may convict. If you have a hard time presenting the concept of sin, it is very difficult for God to convict through that message.

  • TitforTat

    If you have a hard time presenting the concept of sin, it is very difficult for God to convict through that message.(Aaron)

    Lol. I see you have little faith in your God. If it is important for mere humans to “help” your god convict people, then god help us all. The best way to show the love of Jesus is to love people. Having to point out how f….. up they are will just alienate them. Why is it “Christians” all seem to miss the point of the message. Love one another. The rest will take care of itself.

  • Aaron

    Indeed… faith is lacking and I count myself an heir of the disciples who heard that often from Christ when he was on earth. It is the blind leading the blind, yet we believe that it is the Spirit of God who convicts … and that same Spirit works through those whom God has called.

    Please read my post about moralism in re: to your comment about love: https://lunchboxsw.wordpress.com/2009/10/07/i-kissed-moralism-good-bye/ … Love that has been displayed to us by God through Jesus Christ is certainly the point… but I will challenge you that loving one another is. There is no possible way that I can perfectly love other people to earn the favor of God, let along the favor of my fellow humans. Indeed, it is the mercy and grace of God that makes any difference!

  • mitchkuhn

    TitforTat,

    Recently I went and listened to Rob Bell in Tampa for 2 hours talk about this “Drops Likes Stars” book and the idea of suffering. He made the statement “His God does not create suffering.” I would challenge that he does not believe in the God of the Bible. Here is why; 1 Peter 4:19, “Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful creator in doing what is right.”
    According to Scripture God does indeed put forth suffering as part of His Will.

  • Chris

    @henryfrueh. What you look for, you will find.

    Rob has continually asserted his position on the Gospel and Lordship of Christ and as nice as it sounds, those who support him do not speak for him.

    As far as supporting an Orthodox view, just because something is called Orthodox doesn’t make it Orthodox; it just means it’s a long held belief.

    It is important through time to challenge the point of certain Orthodox ideas and the Church has a very long history of doing so.

  • Chris

    @henryfrueh. Apprising Ministries? Really? I’ve never seen a website link back to their own material for explanations as much as they do; and it’s not even quality work. I’m not sure you could find a more bias source than this group.

    It seems that the only views which they will affirm is “classic, historic, orthodox Christian theology”, though I’ve never seen them affirm anything (other than themselves). In that, I wonder who they charter to define what is ‘classic, historic, orthodox Christian theology’. Who’s interpretation of theology are they supportive of? And do they understand that that person’s interpretation of theology is just that: that person’s interpretation?

    As I previously said, the Church has a long standing tradition of quesitoning and challenging long held beliefs in the Church and in the end, we’re all better off for it.

  • Nick

    Sir I believe you have a misinterpretation of Rob Bells work and should take that up with him, before you hang him out to dry on the internet. Anyone can do that.

  • Aaron

    Uh, no… not a misinterpretation. He gives an alternate explanation for the cross and does not offer it as a solution.

    And I have attempted to contact Rob Bell via his Twitter account, his church, and his publisher: https://lunchboxsw.wordpress.com/2009/10/27/dear-rob-bell/

  • J. Manners

    You seem to be very humble about criticism. I respect you a lot for that. I do have to say that I took something very different away from what Rob had to say about suffering. Actually it connected some dots of the picture for me. It helped me to understand better a time I went through that was very difficult for me, and a realization that I had come to. The realization was irrelevant but that the process I went though in coming to it, he practically described while he was talking.

  • Parke Ladd

    Hey Aaron,

    Thanks a lot for taking the time to read the book, review it and write this for all of us to read, contemplate and talk about in light of Rob Bell and his “Drops Like Stars.” I know these reviews can be time consuming, and it takes a certain level of boldness to take a stand for what you believe for all the world to see.

    I had to read your post twice in order to pick up on everything and then compare and contrast it with what I took away from Rob’s “show” last night in Indy. I must say, his book must be the exact same thing as his show. I didn’t realize that he was basically performing what he already wrote in the book. I suppose that’s why it was a book tour, eh? This is probably why I had so much trouble supporting Rob last night. His message was so eloquent, clean and comfy, that it would be very easy for anyone to lose site of the gospel and Jesus while being lulled away by the voice and choreography of Bell. I was saddened and disappointed by Bell. I love the guy. He seems like someone I would really enjoy being around and talking with, but his message was so vague and off base that I did not know where to turn after his show. He almost completely left out the gospel and Jesus from his show. I was shocked at how he purposely left out Jesus, and how open ended he left his presentation. I could have just as easily walked away believing that Gandhi or some other famous author was the way to God and freedom from suffering. I longed for Bell to say, “You are suffering, I know, Jesus knows, and He is the only way to peace and joy everlasting in the midst of suffering and in the midst of easy living.” I longed for Bell to shout at the top of his lungs, “Jesus!” But he never did. He left the underlying core message of the gospel and Christ out of his show. I felt as if he was saying, “You can do it by yourself. Solve your own suffering. Carve your own bar of soap. You can do it.” This makes me so sad. We can do nothing, let alone find peace in the midst of suffering, outside of Christ.

    In his attempt to be artistic and creative, he mistakenly made these characteristic qualities the foundation for his message instead of allowing them to point us toward the true foundation, Jesus Christ. Creativity from suffering (from my point of view) has become his focus, and he has essentially forgotten who we suffer for, why we suffer, and who it is that can rescue us from all pain and suffering.

    I really respect Rob, and I hope that one day we meet and get to talk about these things face to face. I think there may be more to this man then what he lets on because he enjoys creating conversations and inspiring guys like us to talk about him and the issues he brings to light. I don’t know. Whether it’s simply his creativity and approach to preaching which forces him to leave his message so wide open or it’s something else, I may never know. Either way, I hope that through disagreeing with him or agreeing, it brings us all closer to Jesus.

    Thanks again for writing this.

  • Parke Ladd

    Hey Aaron, Here’s my review of Drops Like Stars, the Show:
    http://www.parkeladd.com/2009/12/13/the-rob-bell-experience/ Let me know what you think.

  • Chris Kammerer

    “An error is the more dangerous in proportion to the degree of truth which it contains” ~Henri Frederic Amiel

    Fortunately, considering the above quote, Bell’s material is becoming less and less dangerous.

  • Jonathan

    Amen to Chris Kammerer! Truly, for a pastor to be ashamed of his Savior (Luke 9:26) or to preach any other gospel but the one given to us by Him (Galatians 1:8), he is not worthy of his position. When a church like Mars Hill becomes that “easy” to go to, you have to wonder if you are still on the strait and narrow way.

  • Steve

    I for myself….I am so bored with christianity. Im not bored with God or scripture, but I am so bored by our attempts at “church”..I cant even believe I am bothering to write something here – adding to a bunch of Christians hammering at another…so why dont you all start a church and write books?…youve all so obviously got the “Gospel” down pat
    Rob Bell for me, Is like a breath of fresh air – looking at things from a different angle. If you go to Mars Hill website their “creed” is there and and it shows he believes in everythig you people have been accusing him of not….I dont go to church anymore…am I a “heretic”….sheesh.

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