Let’s be honest, Rob Bell knows how to communicate. Whether or not we agree with anything he says, Bell knows how to make what he says sexy. Drops Like Stars is dressed up in designer attire; the book’s barcode is exiled and even the publishing information gets relegated to the back of the book. The book is filled with striking contrasts, “death by wallpaper and flooring” over against starvation or being shot. Opening the book, after an empty spread and an initial title page, we are presented with a double page spread which has the words, “I know a man who” “has two sons” which springs into another of these contrasts; the joy of life, and the sorrow of death that hospital hallways see, “We live in the hallways, don’t we?” From this point, Bell offers his readers “a few thoughts on creativity and suffering” (an apt tagline on the back cover).
Creativity and suffering are an interesting pair to coordinate. Bell draws from sculptors, novelists and lyricists, deftly painting the picture of a world in which some things don’t make sense. Suffering, he argues, is a powerful uniting force because it goes beneath the veneer and forces us to be honest with ourselves and each other.
Bell demonstrates a remarkable ability to draw from his sources. Every other page involves quotation or explanation of some or other artist or artistic endeavour whether that be Pope John Paul II, Johnny Cash, bumper stickers or soap sculpture. His ability to draw such breadth of life into so brief a book is notable and contributes to his literature’s ability to draw the reader in.
Ultimately though, Bell is offering an answer to what is perhaps one of the most profoundly human questions posed to Christianity: what about evil and suffering? Of course, more questions are asked than answers given but, Bell would argue, that’s the point. He ardently avoids downplaying suffering and giving pat answers to real pain. That may be unsatisfactory to many but the notion will resonate with many in our age.
Probably the best answer that Bell provides is near the end of the book where he quotes a sculptor,
So in the end every major disaster, every tiny error, every wrong turning, every fragment of discarded clay, all the blood, sweat and tears – everything has meaning. I give it meaning. I reuse, reshape, recast all that goes wrong so that in the end nothing is wasted and nothing is without significance and nothing ceases to be precious to me.
In the mouth of God, such words are indeed a comfort, “I give it meaning … nothing is wasted”.
This was not the answer with which, I think, the book as a whole leaves its reader though. The mounting of story upon story, striking cord upon cord with anyone who has suffered, does not culminate in a real answer. “Nothing is wasted” is certainly an answer but it’s not the direction of the book. Providing an answer would undermine Bell’s need not to provide an answer because any answer must generalise pain and he sees the danger of divorcing the concept of pain from the person suffering it. The cross is mentioned to illustrate a God “suffering like us” and “screaming alongside us”.
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
Plans and timetables don’t sit with creativity. Unfortunately this is where I find the fundamental flaw in Bell’s response to suffering. Certinaly, “pain, anguish and death” are central to the cross but it was, nevertheless, in “the fullness of time” that “God sent forth his Son”, it was planned from the “foundations of the world”. This, I think, is a far more powerful response to suffering: God sees evil and he says, “No” – and in saying “No” he resolves to overthrow it at extraordinary cost to himself and that, not on a whim, planned from eternity; an immeasurable cost that God would pay and that he knew he would pay and that he orchestrated all of history to pay.
Suffering is not meaningless then, but it’s also not good and so we don’t have to try to find answers because God’s plan for the universe is to bring suffering to an end. God sees pain and his response is not simply to come to our side and share in our pain, though he does this too, his response is to declare war upon it and bring it to an end. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame by triumphing over them.