Drops Like Stars is Rob Bell’s latest, and with the price tag and size of it, one would expect this book to have quite a lot to contribute to the topic of suffering.
But to be fair, the subtitle is of course, “A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Suffering.”
And few they are.
Perhaps the central thought is that suffering should not be thought of as generating a “Why?” question, but rather a “What now?”sort of question
What follows then is an attempt to inspire one to creative redemption of one’s suffering by means of elaborate visuals and avant garde page layouts.
It is noted that even God became incarnate to relate to us in our suffering, or more poignantly, He came to “Scream alongside us.”
God even uses suffering to trim away our excesses, to show us what really matters, to show us a whole new way of living.
For some, maybe this represents a paradigmatic shift. A new way to view suffering. Potential for meaning has now been unlocked where it was once hidden away to those in pain.
But is this really at that helpful?
If one has never read extensively on suffering, this book might seem insightful.
If one has never really experienced substantial suffering, this book might be inspirational.
If one has actually read more than a book or two on suffering, or actually experienced suffering, devastation, and severe loss in life, the few thoughts in this book will come off as half formed thoughts and fluffy platitudes.
Besides vacuous, platitudinous might be a very helpful way to describe the contents of this book.
My chief concern in even composing a review of this book after reading it while sitting in the DTS bookstore is that people will tend to jump on the bandwagon in either one of two ways.
- A quick perusal of negative reviews on Amazon shows that some people that typically like Bell find this book unpalatable, but not for its content, but its wasteful layout. This is of course missing the point.
- A quick perusal of positive reviews on Amazon shows that people that typically like this book, really like it and will so herald it to everyone they know and it will be labeled as innovative and brilliant for better or worse.
Both of these tend to center on the layout of the book more so than the content. Not that content is ignored, but this book’s approval tends to rise and fall on the reader’s perception of the layout.
To be sure, it does have a very nice layout, it is coffee table sized and is full of excellent photography. If it were just a picture book, I’m sure no one would denigrate it.
What no one has hit on though is how the layout of the book actually conflicts with the message presented.
If suffering is somehow something God uses to trim away your excesses to “mold you” so to speak into who he has for you, this book represents the antithesis of someone who has actually experienced suffering (and so produces a book mirroring that), which is probably accurate of Bell.
Like most of us (myself included), Bell has no real experiential idea of what suffering is like, in terms that either our 1st century brothers and sisters in Christ, or our contemporary brothers and sisters in 3rd world and hostile countries could relate to.
As such, he both misrepresents it verbally and visually mis-packages a book about it.
The glaring example is Jesus incarnation being portrayed more as a mission to identify with us in our suffering rather than to
- Provide the means by which we will ultimately be saved from it in the next life.
- Provide the model by which we ourselves we suffer in this life.
Bell uses Paul’s example from 2 Corinthians, but misses Paul’s underlying understanding of it Philippians.
Just as reminder, Paul viewed his suffering as a means to becoming more Christlike, and as such was something he sought (!).
“My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain the resurrection from the dead.” – Philippians 3:10-11 (NET)
This presents and underlying philosophy of suffering that differs radically from that presented in Drops Like Stars. At best what it seems like Bell is doing is trying to connect the Scriptures to how the world asks the question of suffering, rather than doing what other more competent Bible teachers do and re-frame the question entirely before bringing the gospel to bear on the issue.
The emotional impact this book can have on readers is highly disproportionate to the actual content it provides. As such, people are likely to champion it out of ignorance, either not knowing there is more substantial literature out there that addresses the issue with just as much potential to shift one’s paradigm.
Or, being fooled by the elaborate and visually stunning layout they think there is more depth to this book than there is actually is (which is just fear man of keeping them from admitting they don’t get it).
Which brings us back to the point about packaging clashing with the message.
If this book had been packaged by someone who actually knew about suffering, it would resemble a simple trade paperback like Richard Wurmbrand’s Tortured for Christ
The title alone tells you Wurmbrand might know a little more both Biblically and experientially about the topic.
There are no pictures in it. But I’m sure if there were, and they were just as glossy and huge as the one’s in Bell’s book, our culture might rant and rave about it too.
But having actually experienced a life of suffering, Wurmbrand’s book (which pagewise is the same length as Bell’s) is trimmed of all excess.
The depth of his insight doesn’t need stunning visuals to shatter your paradigm, his wise content speaks volumes, screaming alongside you what real suffering is and how God is faithful in not just meeting you there but using it to make you more Christlike and through His Spirit draw you closer to himself.
If you want to have a large colorful book that popular culture might hail as an artistic masterpiece on suffering, then go spend the $25 or more on Bell’s book.
If you want to actually gain Christ-centered insights about suffering and its redemptive purpose, spend $5 getting Tortured for Christ on Amazon and put that other $20 to better use.
Or, actually get tortured for Christ and know Him on a level most of us only dream of.
But that doesn’t sell well now does it?