by Mike Stanwood
What has red gilded pages, a hard cover, and costs more than the average person might pay for a book that can be read in one sitting? From a distance, Rob Bell’s gigantic new book Drops like Stars is reminiscent of the Twilight Series look, with red flower and broken petals falling and shattering to pieces against a black backdrop. It looks like something you might find on a table in the corner of your favorite trendy coffee shop.
Drops Like Stars is Rob Bell’s fourth book and much different from the others (Velvet Elvis, Sex God and Jesus Wants to Save Christians)–I couldn’t help wonder how environmentally incorrect it would be considered by the earth-hugging culture, as many pages are blank, or contain a few words at best. The book is basically what they say it’s about. A few thoughts on suffering–short on words, big on paper. It reads like a Nooma DVD script. Artsy and unique, the empty pages are the pauses; the full page photographs are meant to draw the reader in visually to stories or ideas said to be deep and stunning by some, overly simplistic by others. In between the pauses are various short stories about suffering, chopped and mixed together with quotes and commentaries by Bell.
The book opens with the story of the two sons, which we know as a beautiful, timeless picture of the Father’s grace toward the prodigal son. But in the retelling of this story, Rob Bell (pastor of Mars Hill church in Grand Rapids, MI) turns the perspective to how the story doesn’t end. How the older son doesn’t put his arm around the father, and Bell says, “You’re right, Dad … I’ve been such an ass. Can I get you a beer?”(p. 011). Bell laments that “we never find what the older brother decides to do,” and how “some elder brothers never join the party,” and that “lots of parties are missing somebody.” (Bell leaves his readers with a recommendation in his endnotes to discover more perspectives on Jesus’ story of 2 sons by reading Timothy Keller’s book The Prodigal God and The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen.)
As the subject turns to suffering, the question Bell asks is not the usual “why does God allow suffering,” but “what now?” From here, the train of thought shifts to the topic of “out of the box” thinking. When we suffer, we are “out of the box” because our “insulators” are dismantled and there is “disruption”–these are keywords repeated often on the next pages. The key word for dealing with new realities, Bell writes, is “imagine.”
Bell presents the young Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) as an example as one who coped, his insulators being smashed as a young man when his entire family died. There are many more tragic stories in this book about people who have had their boxes smashed, their insulators removed, the empty places inside of them opened up; but in answering his own question of “what now?,” does Rob Bell offer the hope of a Savior as a solution to such suffering in the world, as the Bible instructs? Of this, he falls short.
“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.” 1 Peter 3:15
Countless Christians can attest to the fact that God has used suffering to bring them face to face with their own mortality, leading them to salvation in Christ. In fact, the Bible tells us that our salvation is made perfect in suffering (Hebrews 2:10). But instead of giving an answer for the reason of the hope that lies within the Christian heart, Bell offers the reader the philosophy that suffering unites. Like those who have been affected by cancer, Bell’s book says suffering unites us in compassion, empathy, solidarity, connection, and love. He sees pain as a necessary way to get to God (none get to God but through trouble), and honesty as the process to really feel alive.
However, our suffering is not so much about getting to God through trouble, but about His conforming us–bringing us into alignment with His will when we realize our weakness and utter hopelessness without Him, and our great need for Him. The Bible tells us there will be suffering until the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:22). But what Bell does not say is that true unity can be found in Christ alone, and the only way any of us can receive new life and final redemption is to be born again by faith through His grace.
It’s all about the art of the ache and expressing feelings, the ache being the universal factor that reassures us we are not alone. There is a bond in suffering that unites–this is the art of solidarity (p 65). Like Jesus when he hung on the cross, “feeling what we feel, aching how we ache, suffering like us” (p 67).
But did Christ suffer “like us”? The Bible says he suffered and was marred more than any man (Isaiah 52:14). He took our punishment so we don’t have to suffer as He did on the cross. Even so, Bell wonders (p 69) if the cross is God’s way of saying “I know how you feel.” The Bible says we are one in Christ Jesus, through the sacrificial blood atonement of the Lamb of God, our substitute. This is the unity Jesus prayed for in His High Priestly prayer before He was crucified (John 17).
Rob Bell never gets to that. Instead he mixes it up with more insulators being destroyed and more boxes smashed, and a quote from Susan Howatch’s fictional Starbridge series (p 68) about the whole point of the incarnation being someone else (God) coming into the world and screaming alongside of us. But the Bible tells us that God’s only Son was sent into the world to save us, and suffer in our place, not just feel our pain and scream with us. (John 3:16,17)
This view of the cross brings God to our level. While Jesus Christ became a man and bore our sins upon Himself, it wasn’t simply to feel what we feel, but to break the power of sin and death in order that we might have eternal life in Him. It is through his suffering, death AND resurrection that we are now united in Christ. Tragically, Bell has not given his readers the whole truth.
“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” John 8:32
In a recent interview Bell said: “The most powerful thing is when somebody joins us in our suffering … In some ways the gospel, or the story of Jesus, is like a cosmic act of solidarity.”–Mars Hill founding pastor to speak in Winnipeg, By Aaron Epp, Friday, July 24, 2009, http://www.christianweek.org/stories.php?id=597
Did God send His Son so that we could stand together in the solidarity of our sufferings? No. Not our sufferings … Those in Christ Jesus find fellowship in and around HIS sufferings: “That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death” (Philippians 3:10).
Jesus Christ conquered the power of sin and death, but has yet to return and put an end to suffering. There are only two choices for all of humanity–eternal life in Christ in heaven, or eternity without Him in Hell. Of these two realities, Bell gives no warning or makes no distinction.
Bell’s frequent use of the word solidarity is curious–this is a term associated with unions and political socialism, as if we are all fractals, or parts of a whole without the finished work of Christ.
According to wikipedia, a fractal is “a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is … a reduced-size copy of the whole,”… a property called self-similarity.
Like the fragmented flower petals pictured in Drops Like Stars?
How coincidental that a similar new view is finding its way into the current emerging church of which Bell is part–this is a new emerging world-view based on the “new science’s” research on fractals.
“… the term “fractal” is directly related to what are being called the “new sciences” of “Chaos Theory” and “Fractal Theory.”
(p. 141, “Fractals, Chaos Theory, Quantum Spirituality, and The Shack,” A Wonderful Deception)
“Teilhard de Chardin, Matthew Fox, Leonard Sweet, and others with New Age affections are teaching the world and the church that God is “in” every atom–therefore God is “in” everything–therefore we are all One–“As above, so below.” But in the Bible, the apostle Paul made it very clear to the Greek unbelievers on Mars Hill that while humanity shares one blood (Acts 17:26)–and all the cellular similarity that infers–humanity is still in need of a Savior.” (p. 148, “Fractals, Chaos Theory, Quantum Spirituality, and The Shack,” A Wonderful Deception)
But nowhere in Drops Like Stars does Rob Bell mention the need for a Savior for our suffering. The Apostle Paul, on the other hand, never stopped talking about the gospel of Jesus Christ, and continued in spite of his sufferings to bear witness that not only did Christ suffer, but was also the first to rise from the dead.
As the pages of Drops Like Stars are turned from thoughts on the cross, we are carried into the art world. Once again, Bell relays that there’s a key element of imagination and creativity in suffering, and the art of elimination is a big part of that. For example, a sculptor’s most important work is knowing what to take away. (Is this the same method that Bell has used to reimagine, sculpt and take away the truth, revealing his humanistic views?)
After more quotes and visuals (Van Gogh, Mark Twain, Michelangelo, Nike swoosh) the reader finds himself staring at a full page picture of a bar of soap, followed by various soap carvings over the next few pages because sculptors remove, eliminating the superficial and trivial in the same way that suffering reveals what matters most.
Here would have been a great opportunity to share with the reader how it is God, the ultimate sculptor, who in His mercy cleanses and refines us through suffering and trials in order to mold us into His image.
“But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap.” Malachi 3:2
“But now, O LORD, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand.” Isaiah 64:8
Instead we read in Drops Like Stars that there is greatness in you, and it takes suffering to get at it (p. 91). But is this what the Bible says?
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Jeremiah 17:9
We have no greatness in us, but God has great plans for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose, and His power is made perfect in our weakness. This is what Bell completely misses.
Bell does put some Bible references to suffering in his book, and we are reminded that the apostle Paul suffered, having nothing but possessing everything (p 94). This brings up more short stories–of Rwanda, AIDS, David Letterman, Warren Zevon, and how when we suffer we become grateful for what we formerly took for granted. Such as the unemployed Argentineans that Bell observed in his travels who sang with passion. This was solidarity and hope. Not in God, but in their poverty and suffering.
On page 115 of Drops Like Stars, Bell quotes Franciscan priest and contemplative mystic Richard Rohr who tells of the native Americans who have a tradition of leaving a blemish in the rug they are weaving because thatâ€™s where the spirit enters. Bell repeats this idea, saying it’s in the blemish that the Spirit enters, relating this to coming to the end of ourselves through pain, and God turning our fragments into something new that we could never create on our own. Bell concludes that “it turns out that a Navajo rug and a Roman cross have a lot in common” (p 117).
Speaking of Richard Rohr, it is not unusual for emergent writers to turn to Rohr. His beliefs fit very well together with those in the emerging camp. In a Lighthouse Trails report on Mike Erre’s book, Death by Church, it states:
Rohr is the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation. His spirituality would be in the same camp as someone like Matthew Fox (author of The Coming of the Cosmic Christ) who believes in pantheism (God is all) and panentheism (God in all). Rohr wrote the foreword to a 2007 book called How Big is Your God? by Jesuit priest (from India) Paul Coutinho. In Coutinho’s book, he describes an interspiritual community where people of all religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity) worship the same God.
There are differing traditions about the blemish in the Navajo rug. Called the “Weaver’s Pathway,” or “Spirit Line,” it may have come from a legend of a Spider Woman spirit being. Some say the Spirit Line is where the weaver’s spirit leaves the rug so that she can create other rugs, preventing her spirit from being trapped. Others say the Weaver’s Pathway counters negative symbolism in the pattern, and allows any evil spirits or energy residing in the rug to be released into energy and imagination for more rugs.
Instead of explaining this connection further, Rob Bell leaves his readers hanging by a thread, wondering exactly what native spirituality and spirits have in common with a Roman cross.
A little further along in his book, Bell quotes Abraham Joshua Heschel (a rabbi who believed that no religion had a monopoly on truth) who said that one should “live life as if it were a work of art called your own existence” (p 126). This reminds Bell of another Susan Howatch quote regarding the creative process that is the reward, and that nothing is wasted or without significance (p 128). These quotes support an emerging thought that it’s the journey that counts and not the destination, as Bell has said before, “The way of Jesus is a journey, not a destination” (p 168 Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell).
This is a journey where hell is a present reality and our final destination is not “somewhere out there.” Isn’t this what mystic proponent Ken Wilber believes, that the truth cannot be found in truth but in the journey of seeking it? (Rob Bell did recommend his readers spend 3 months reading Wilber in his book Velvet Elvis, p 192.) The unbiblical goal of this emergent journey is to find a way for all truths to fit together, making the journey the important goal, not the destination.
Near the end of the book, we are told that Drops Like Stars got its name because of Bell’s nephew who thought raindrops hitting the ground were stars. Oddly enough, even though this book does not give the biblical reason for suffering, the title is pointing to it. Dropping like stars is not an uncommon theme in the Bible, as when Jesus spoke of what he saw fall from heaven.
“And he said unto them, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven.” Luke 10:18
And throughout the Bible, it talks about various messengers coming down from heaven. In the book of Revelation, there is a star that drops from heaven, to whom was given a key to open the bottomless pit (Rev. 9:1,2). According to God’s Word, there will be one more time when all will see Satan drop like a star, and that will be when Satan, formerly the most beautiful angel of all, and his followers are finally thrown into the lake of fire. That’s where solidarity in suffering will be a reality–forever (Rev.20:10).
But this does not fit into Bell’s theology. God’s eternal plan for mankind should be central to a book with this theme, from the beginning of creation to the end of all time, as God has laid out His plan for salvation for us in His Word. Instead of answers, Bell offers a humanist perspective of life and a shallow version of hope that our culture would easily accept. And no wonder, as his own words recently revealed:
“Asking questions, engaging the wider culture and connecting with people are important aspects of his ministry, but the key, he says, is hope.”–Ibid. Mars Hill founding pastor to speak in Winnipeg, by Aaron Epp, Friday, July 24, 2009
In conclusion–if it’s a coffee table book with worldly wisdom and emerging spirituality you seek, this book may be just the one. You will not find much godly counsel within these spacious pages, but plenty of name dropping quotes from famous musicians, writers, artists, movies and celebrities to whom the world will gladly listen. In Bell’s attempt to engage the culture, he has drawn from the philosophy and wisdom of the world and abdicated his responsibility as an evangelical pastor to represent the Gospel.
And what a shame. Far more important than the wasting of trees and paper with nearly blank pages in a book, there is an eternal significance–a wasted opportunity to share God’s hope to a dying world. Our hope, our solidarity, and our unity is not in suffering, but in the resurrection power of our living Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Hope of the world.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you.
1 Peter 1:3,4
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