A Brief Review of
Drops Like Stars:
A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Suffering.
Oversized Hardback: Zondervan, 2009.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
Rob Bell has offered us in his new book DROPS LIKE STARS — which is likely the most innovatively designed and elegant book produced in the Christian market this year — a challenging essay on the centrality of suffering in human life. In his own words, the heart of Bell’s argument is that:
The ache is universal.
The ache reminds us that things aren’t how they’re supposed to be.
The ache cuts through all the static,
all the ways we avoid actually having to feel things.
The ache reassures us that we’re not the only ones who feel this way (53).
The cross, it turns out, is about the mysterious work of God
which begins not with big plans
and carefully laid out timetables
but in pain and anguish and death (116-117).
Like a sculptor chipping away at a block of stone — or in the case of DROPS LIKE STARS, bars of soap — God allows suffering to chip away at us, compelling us “to eliminate the unnecessary, the trivial, the superficial” (91). Having been well-acquainted with suffering myself in the last couple of years, losing a daughter and watching my four-year-old son battle cancer, Bell’s words here ring true, especially his insights in the early pages of the book about the ways in which suffering disorients us and removes the “insulators” that provide context and thereby meaning for us in daily life. Bell demonstrates a keen sense of the shared human experience of both suffering and our tendency to avoid suffering, and describes these experiences in sharp, vivid prose that is reminiscent of the theological works of Frederick Buechner.
This is a beautiful book in every aspect, from Bell’s streamlined, poetic prose to the over-sized photography throughout to the creative design that permeates every inch of every page. However, there is a theological tension in this work that rises to a crescendo near the end of the text. Bell is certainly correct in emphasizing the centrality of the cross and suffering in the Christian life (and perhaps, one could say, in all human life). It seems though that Bell here diverges from the scriptural narrative that he fleshed out in JESUS WANTS TO SAVE CHRISTIANS. Over the course of DROPS LIKE STARS, it seems that the basic narrative that Bell is working from is the culturally-dominant one of individualism. Bell’s objective here unfortunately seems to be little more than to offer his own prescription, albeit more theologically refined than other such prescriptions, for finding one’s best life now. Consider the point toward which Bell is driving (as quoted from Abraham Joshua Heschel):
When you’re young, start working on this great work of art called your own existence.
Bell is absolutely right that suffering can bring about beauty and even redemption, but insofar as God allows suffering, its end is not the redemption of us as individuals — making us better, or more creative — but rather the redemption of the people of God and eventually all creation. In the scriptural story, I have died (or at least am dying) to myself and the question of whether I become a better person is irrelevant. Bell’s gospel of self-improvement, especially when packaged in such artistic finery will sell and sell well in the marketplace (especially, I imagine, among the young, Christian hipster demographic), dominated as it is by individualism. The Gospel of Jesus Christ that has redeemed and is transforming all creation, “foolishness to the Greeks” as it is called by some, is much less marketable, though no less beautiful. I’m saddened that this exceedingly beautiful book and Bell’s finely crafted descriptions of the twistedness of human nature were muddied with the narrative of self-improvement as the work progressed into its prescriptions about how should handle our broken state of affairs.