Jenny and I joined four of our friends from the Bethpage Church at the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville Wednesday night to see Rob Bell, one of the few American pastors who can "tour" 1,000-seat theaters to promote a book in this day and age.
If you've seen Bell's "Nooma" videos, or you've read some of his books, you know what to expect. I've always been drawn to his intellectualism--his 'Everything is Spiritual' tour really spoke to me with its incorporation of physics and extra-dimensionality. But what has helped Bell to become one of the most widely recognized voices in Christianity is his embrace of 21st-century media.
I don't know of any channel where I can watch his sermon's every week. I do know that four or five times a year, NOOMA integrates a sermon into a compelling film which is then circulated among churches and Sunday schools of all denominational stripes--for those of you who don't know Nooma, it's basically a sermon delivered over a cool soundtrack, highlighted by a well-filmed backstory that elaborates on the sermon's themes.
Bell is media; he is message--and he integrates both sensationally.
In Drops like Stars, Bell tackles the thorniest of theological issues: suffering. It seems like a reach. It is one of the most written-about themes in Christian literature, from the book of Job to Bonhoeffer to Phillip Yancey's recent addition to this ouvre, Where is God when it Hurts. Bell's take isn't to reach for the big answers, but tries to propose a new context to suffering--to ask new questions about what suffering can accomplish in the believer's life--rather than why it occurred in the first place. Not "Why This?" as Bell puts it, but "What Now?"
I liked this approach. It testifies to Bell's creativity--his live presentation is a feast of the senses, something that evokes his fascination with music, art, film, and all manners of the creative process. It provides hope for all of us--not hope in a world free of suffering, but of hope in a community in which our own suffering, along with the shared suffering of those around us, spurs us to find more in ourselves than we ever would have expected.
While he used a host of well-chosen anecdotes about everything from Pope John to the Will Farrell movie, Old School, his message was grounded in solid biblical principles: Paul's exhortation to the Corinthians that he and his evangelizing companions had been "sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything" (2 Cor 6.10); Jesus' tale of the prodigal son.
I especially appreciated his meditation on the cross--the ultimate sign of suffering in Jesus' day. When Christians wear this--when we display it in our churches--we are saying, "I embrace suffering: I adore the man who suffered here; I am an instrument to embrace those who suffer around me."
How I wished Bell had gone on. The presentation lasted a solid two hours, yet it opened up so many more areas of the Bible for me. The Beatitudes call us "blessed" when we suffer, when we are poor, when we are meek. They embraced suffering two years before the Cross, and they prescribe a fair amount of suffering for those who choose to follow Christ.
Perhaps true suffering is where real Christianity begins and all the fake forms of the religion evaporate. The Prosperity Gospel, the Medieval crusades, inquisitions, premillenial and hellfire-and-brimstone brands of Christianity go to great lengths to either ignore suffering that goes on in the present or contribute greatly to it.
I can't wrap up this review without commenting on the media. In his "Everything..." tour, Bell had used a whiteboard, which he had filled over the course of the sermon with illustrations of the theories he was describing. The "Drops..." presentation was far more media-driven.
Early in his sermon, Bell said, "Someone tweeted before we started that he had the worst seats in the house, and from the picture he posted, he was somewhere up there." He pointed to the upper balcony, high above where Jenny and I were sitting in the front. A guy waved his hands.
"Come on down," Bell said, pointing to two empty seats on the front row of the floor.
"I want a better seat, too," a female voice cried from another side of the balcony.
"Bring her with you," Bell said. I was amazed that he would have been checking his Twitter so close to the presentation.
As Bell spoke, there was a huge screen on the stage. At several points of the presentation, Bell interacted with the image on the screen--standing in the middle of a pictured hospital hallway, for example, and walking from door to door. At other times the screen showed texts, quotes and video. I thought he used the illustrations in a unique way, interacting with them, using them as powerful parts of his stories.
He also used a couple of kinesthetic tricks that appealed to the teacher in me. He gave each member of the audience a bar of soap. Then he demonstrated photos of images that sculptors had found within similar bars of soap--this is a great technique, and I plan to use it when I teach Greece and Rome. However, there wasn't anything to carve the soap with, and onlookers were merely encouraged to take the soap home...and...carve away.
The second stunt was better. When we suffer we identify with others who are suffering. Bell described how an injury to his writing hand had provided him with empathy for all who are injured. He had us write, "I know how you feel," with our non-writing hand. Then he asked everyone for whom cancer had impacted to stand. They exchanged cards. He did this with those suffering from addictions, those struggling to pay bills, several other scenarios, and the room was filled with empathy as cards were exchanged. We knew how others felt. It was a cool display.
There were a few things about the presentation that are unique to Rob Bell (I'm not sure why this is part of his style, but I noted them).
He didn't cite scripture. He used scripture, but you would need a concordance to figure out which ones. "Jesus tells a story about a man with two sons" is how he begins the story of the Prodigal Son. "A man named Paul once said" was the prelude to the text to 2 Corinthians 6.10. I'm assuming that he's used to talking to unchurched people like this, but I--a rather overchurched person--found it difficult to follow along sometimes.
Comparing notes with Jenny after the service, it was interesting how our differences had affected what we had seen. Jenny is really going through a challenging time at the clinic now, and she encounters tremendous suffering on a daily basis in the stories of her patients. She really identified with Bell's message. Admittedly I am not as emotional as Jenny, and I didn't feel as blessed, although I picked up some great ideas and some fuel for further Bible study.
In my opinion, Drops like Stars stretches the media in creative, unpredictable new ways, but it didn't feed my mind and my spirit in the ways I have seen other messages do.