Drops Like Stars
By Brendan Case
September 8, 2009
Rob Bell’s newest book, Drops Like Stars (Zondervan 2009), offers “a few thoughts on creativity and suffering.” Of course, Bell has no new addition to the annals of metaphysical theodicy; rather, this is a work of practical theology, not asking of suffering, “Why this?” but rather, “What now?”
Drops is an exciting new direction for the prolific pastor, both for the maturity of its theological reflection, and for its fascinating—at times stunning—design and visual elements, which play freely in the expansive book’s “coffee table” dimensions.
Bell begins with the fact of suffering, its leering ubiquity, the terrifying suddenness with which a cloud on the horizon, a collision with a stranger or a call from a doctor can shatter our security, our agendas, our certainties. Bell calls these familiar reference points “insulators,” and notes that many of us—in our wealth and safety—are insulated to the point of madness and despair, until we begin to suffer “death by wallpaper”: suffocation by the weight of our trivial ambitions and occupations.
In Drops, Bell explores six “art forms” that arise in the wake of suffering, the first of which is “the art of disruption,” by which sufferers who have “had their boxes smashed and their insulators dismantled” are forced “to imagine a totally different tomorrow.” This disruption occasions the other art forms: in our suffering, we break through our self-deception in “the art of honesty,” we awaken to the brokenness of the world in “the art of the ache,” we discover new depths of community in “the art of solidarity,” we are refined by fire and chisel in “the art of elimination,” and we learn that we worship the “The God Who Wastes Nothing,” in “the art of failure.”
Bell scatters biblical reflection widely across each of the topics, particularly in his discussion of solidarity on page sixty-six. He describes Christ: “A god who is not somewhere else— / remote / detached / distant— / but among us, / feeling what we feel, / aching how we ache.” Bell forcefully (as far as possible for the soft-spoken preacher) rejects the spurious reading suffering as part of some ineffable divine plan, whether determined by necessity, or by God’s inscrutable and indifferent willing of His glory. Rather, Drops assumes the profoundly biblical theme of Christ as both our co-sufferer in the wastes and ravages of fallen time, and our rescuer, the victor over sin and death, who “takes all of our trauma and hurt and disappointment, all those fragments lying there on the ground, and turns them into…something new.”
As with most books, unfortunately, Drops likely would have benefited from Bell’s practicing “the art of elimination” a bit more thoroughly upon his initial manuscript: the first several pages of the book are a halting, and probably unnecessary discussion of the relationship between meaning and context (which features, aptly enough, a witty college entrance essay, and a short speculation about the possibility of replacing opera programs with live squirrels). As a matter of style, Drops would have been a better work if it simply opened with human suffering, letting our imagination pan across the tragic landscape that is our world.
And it must said, of course, that on its own, Bell’s text alone would not be half so inviting and intriguing as this; Drops is as much the imaginative brainchild of creative director Mark Baas, photographer Jay Irwin, and designer Seth Herman as of Bell’s theological reflection. From the shower of shattered flower petals on the cover, to the sleek and spare layout (often featuring only two or three lines a page, with red and black cross-hatching), to the dizzying fish-eye photograph of Times Square, every page is a visual banquet, an invitation to reflection and discussion almost as welcoming as the text itself.
And it is as an invitation, as a question half-uttered, hanging in the air, begging for restatement and response, that Drops will likely find its greatest influence. The economy of Bell’s writing (give yourself an hour or two to finish it at a leisurely pace) prevents him from offering an extended argument, but many of his sentences have an epigrammatic energy that allows them to stand alone: that, and the profusion of Irwin’s evocative photography make it altogether likely that a glance at even a page or two could be enough to generate meaningful conversations.