Rob Bell Takes on Suffering
By Josh Loveless
October 12, 2009
Rob Bell is currently on a book tour for his new book, Drops Like Stars [check out our review here]. We had the opportunity to talk to the author and pastor about suffering, his new book and how we can recalibrate our thinking when we feel completely broken (part of this interview is also on our 10.12.09 podcast)
In your new book, Drops Like Stars, you say that “Our suffering forces us to imagine.” Can you elaborate on that? It seems like you’re pushing us to the idea that dreaming again might be just as violent as grieving.
A blank page of any sort can be terrifying—a blank screen or “they’re not going to be around anymore tomorrow or the next day or the next day” or “we worked together for however many years and now we’re not going to work together anymore.”
[Or there's] the person who lost their job yesterday: What am I going to do? That terror can be read another way as well. Which can be deeply insensitive to say to someone, “Hey, you lost your job, think about what tomorrow may bring.” But the truth is, given a larger perspective, “So ... well ... what do you want to do now?” The whole book is about a paradoxical gift, a sort of bloody, traumatic, awful, strange gift.
In the Jewish tradition, the first thing you do when someone dies is you go over to their house. So the first thing you can give people is your presence. Perhaps in that sense the book is step two or three as opposed to, “Oh, something horrible just happened? You need to start reading.” It may be a while.
I just got a text from a woman who had a relative who took his own life and it wasn’t that long ago and for her the book spoke to her exactly where she’s at. I was interested that she was able ... 'cause sometimes you’re in enough pain and you’re like “Okay, the good side of this? C’mon.” Even the idea of a good side [seems impossible]—but the book isn’t like “Hey there’s a good side” it’s more like “in the midst of this agony are all sorts of interesting paradoxes, let’s just sit in them.” I’ve tried to be very respectful of people and hopefully what people come out of it [with] is real and not sort of manufactured, “Hey you should buck up.” It might be a while.
Drops Like Stars is all about suffering. How has Rob Bell experienced suffering?First, on a less personal note, as a pastor over the years the interesting thing is that you end up being invited into peoples’ really intimate moments of suffering. So you barely know these people and all of a sudden you’re at the hospital standing over this plastic box with them that has their kid in it who’s gonna die in nine days. And then you see them three months later, and then a year later, and then you see them two years later when they got pregnant again and have a healthy kid.
Or you do funerals: I've had numerous times, especially when we first started the church, [when it was] me, the casket and the family at the funeral home in a [small room] and we have to come up with an order of service. A family friend of ours died a couple of months ago, so we got the closest relatives together in a room to talk about what they wanted for the funeral service. It turned into their first chance in a room together to actually talk about him.
[But] I would not be who I am if it wasn’t for relationships that didn’t turn out and people that really, really, really hurt me. When your work has a sort of public dimension to it, people feel free to say whatever they want. So everything from your family to your motives to your integrity to your weight, people feel free to comment on. Over time, you either become cynical and hard and bitter, or you learn to forgive and somehow for some strange reason keep your heart soft.
I hesitate to talk about it, but when you do what you do and there’s a public dimension to it you are exposed and vulnerable and out there and there are ways that people react and things that people say that are very, very painful. And you’re just kind of, if I could use the word "faithful," you’re just trying to be true to what’s been put before you. That is a “wow, I was just kind of doing my thing.” That does produce a sort of pain.
And how do you respond to that suffering?
Well, I think the simple truth is that I have an invitation here to choose a well-worn path of closing down and contracting within myself and just “This person said what? I think all people are horrible.” What am I going to choose to believe here? Will what this person did now in my mind define them? Are they now what they did, so I will no longer be able to see them without thinking of what they did?
Or will I somehow absorb that pain and experience a sort of death and rebirth where I can see them again as a person who says nasty things just like me? And obviously a church and having been at the center of a church that has been on a wild ride: “How do we get along, we have issues and they’re going to come out.”
When you’re in a season of suffering, how does art speak to you in those moments? What art in particular?
A lot of books in Drops Like Stars are in there because they’ve helped me: There’s a series of novels in there that helped my wife and I through some very hard [times]; Irving Stone’s novel on Vincent Van Gogh; [and] the new Muse album will get me through the apocalypse.