...shining light on the media, one review at a time
Like many other Christians, I went to see Soul Surfer with high hopes and anticipation. After all, the film is based on the true story of a Christian teenage girl who made her faith a public part of her inspiring story. The title even has the word “soul” in it—can’t ask for much more Christianity than that, can we? Apparently not if Hollywood has anything to say about the matter.
Though the story of Soul Surfer is not as thoroughly stripped of Christianity as in the case of The Blind Side, there are only enough traces of God and faith left for the filmmakers to stir up a blend of vague Christian ideas and humanism that sweeps in like a tidal wave and washes away the good with the bad, leaving disaster in its wake.
Bethany Hamilton is a special teen. She has lived on the shores of the ocean her entire young life and surfed for most of her years. Possessing talent, a strong work ethic, and an overwhelming passion for surfing, her dream is to become a professional surfer. She makes her surfer parents and brothers proud by successfully winning surfing competitions alongside her closely-matched competitor and best friend, Alana.
Bethany’s idyllic life is turned upside-down, however, when she is surfing one day and is attacked by a shark. She loses one arm in the incident, and the real story—that of her struggle to continue living and conquer the challenges now before her—begins. The film is weighed down with a sluggish beginning, filled with far too many unnecessary scenes, but from the attack on, the story and solid acting performances hook the viewers and don’t let go for the rest of the movie.
Amid the underlying thematic problems, there are a number of things that Soul Surfer does right. Among them is the depiction of a strong marriage and family unit, demonstrated in the Hamiltons. Unlike most young movie heroines in recent films, Bethany has happily married parents. Their loving marriage and friendship provides a secure and healthy environment in which their two sons and Bethany thrive. When faced with the horror of Bethany’s accident, their marriage relationship only tightens, and the bond of the entire family correspondingly strengthens. Almost as an extension of this family unit, the Hamiltons have close friendships that grow in the face of the challenging circumstances with Bethany.
This example of a Christian family would carry much more impact if viewers actually saw real evidence of the Christianity that provided the strong foundation for the real-life Hamilton family. Most of Hollywood, however, would have moviegoers believe that Christians aren’t different at all, but are, at best, just good people who help others and try to enjoy life. Soul Surfer does a good job selling this message, as most aspects of the Hamiltons’ lifestyle and confused beliefs add up to the conclusion that they are merely churchgoers who are otherwise much like any other average American family.
Early in the film, for example, Bethany comes from surfing to attend an outdoor church service with her family. Yet, this scene demonstrates very little by way of authentic Christianity and instead becomes disturbing through the casual manner in which Bethany and her family treat the worship setting. Bethany is late when she arrives, and she chats with her brothers and father during the ongoing worship music, until her mother half-heartedly reminds them that they are in church. When Bethany and her family join in the singing, they are clearly paying no attention to the words that they are singing about God and His attributes. This scene sadly bears great resemblance to the inattention and absence of authentic worship that plagues many real-life churches, and, in that sense, may be realistic. However, the Hamiltons’ cavalier behavior when in the presence of God is certainly not evidence of a sincere Christian faith.
In one of the unnecessary early sequences, Christian behavior is again missing when Bethany sneaks out of the house with Alana to go night surfing. When caught, Bethany is unapologetic and goes unpunished by her parents. Much more disturbing, however, is the total lack of concern Bethany and her family show for modesty. From beginning to end, hardly a scene goes by that doesn’t sport a scantily clad girl or woman. Bethany Hamilton wears a bikini in many scenes, as do her friends, surfing competitors, and her mother. All these women and teens are thin and beautiful, raising the bar high for female moviegoers with the inevitable comparisons they are invited to make in almost every scene.
On the flipside, the average young man will probably have much more on his mind than surfing when watching this film, particularly during a scene when Alana poses seductively for photos in her bikini. One would hope that the supposed Christian characters in this film would take a stand for modesty, as outlined in the Bible, but this issue is one of many in Soul Surfer that makes the “Christians” indistinguishable from the non-believers.
This pattern of misrepresented Christianity continues throughout the film, illustrated even in Bethany’s youth leader, Sarah (played by Carrie Underwood). This woman, who is presented as a mentor in Bethany’s life, is kind and compassionate, but lacks any strong spiritual teaching or conviction. At a youth group meeting, Sarah rather apologetically throws out a Bible verse at the end of her otherwise vague message on gaining perspective. The verse is presented only as something Sarah wants to “share” with the group, because it is something that has helped her.
The lack of spiritual foundation in Scripture and sound teaching is even more apparent when Bethany admits to Sarah her struggle to understand why she lost her arm. Sarah answers that she doesn’t know why bad things happen, but she has to believe something good is going to come out of the situation. Rather than pointing Bethany to the promises of God and the firm foundation He offers (i.e., we know good will come because God promises it will), Sarah leaves Bethany with nothing but a personal desire to believe something happy—a belief that seems unfounded in the face of Bethany’s pain.
Sarah’s tendency to rely on her inner emotional sense, rather than God, makes her one of the crowd in Soul Surfer. The same confusion of Christian truth plagues almost every scene in which Bethany receives counsel from her parents. After her accident, she is encouraged by her father to take hope in Philippians 4:13 (“I can do all things through Him who gives me strength”). Both Bethany and her father, however, take the verse out of context, interpreting the “all things” to mean anything that she desires to do—in this case, surfing. When she seems unable to surf at the level that she used to, she asks her dad what happened to the “all things.” He is apparently suffering from the same lack of Biblical foundation as his daughter, for he is unable to show her the real hope and encouragement offered in that passage.
How sad that the lack of Biblical understanding makes Bethany miss that the actual meaning of that verse is the key to the very thing she needs—contentment in all circumstances. A study of the passage or a legitimate Christian mentor would also remind Bethany that the verse says that such contentment only comes through strength from God and not from oneself. The real Bethany Hamilton has publically stated that her courage comes from Jesus Christ, indicating that she has a clear understanding of where she actually got the strength to face her difficulties. The fictional Bethany, however, has no more knowledge of that truth than her parents.
Instead of counseling Bethany to trust in God and seek His guidance for her future, Bethany’s dad tells her she’ll know what to do when the time is right. He does advise her to pray, but the words are an empty cliché when placed in the context of the humanistic ideas of trusting her inner sense to guide her.
Later in the film, the emphasis on Bethany’s inner sense increases, when her father encourages her to rely on this instinct to predict when the ocean waters are going to create the next large wave. This sequence is dramatic and, in a filmic sense, highly entertaining. Bethany’s ability to become, in a sense, one with the ocean by following her instincts leads to success, making it apparent that this idea of trusting herself—her soul—is what the title is actually referencing. It is disappointing indeed to discover that the soul here is not a Christian soul, won over for Christ, but rather a soul dedicated to the ocean and being one with nature.
The overly high value placed on Bethany’s inner merit, as well as the ocean itself, is not a new concept at this late point in the film. Clearly, Bethany’s dependency on surfing is unhealthy and wrong. Even the filmmakers preserve this message, showing Bethany’s journey to learning that surfing isn’t everything. Her transformation, however, comes through human experience and not through trusting in God or following Him. As a result, she ends up swapping one idol for another, believing that the most important thing in life is to embrace and help others. Admirable, but, in this case, more humanistic than Christian, because there’s no reference to reaching others for God or because that is how God wants Bethany to spend her life and glorify Him. Bethany wants to help others because it makes her feel good—she’s doing it for herself, not God. With God out of the picture, what we’re left with in Soul Surfer is the devil’s American dream—the humanistic message that working hard, having a good attitude, and helping others will bring fulfillment.
In some respects, Soul Surfer is a step in the right direction for Christian moviegoers. The story promotes family values, marriage, and even steers miraculously clear of foul language and violence (the shark attack is brief and tastefully handled). In addition, characters quote two Bible verses on-screen and attend church, truly a rare sight on the big screen. But before Christians rush to Soul Surfer, believing they’re going to see a Christian movie, they should be warned that, as with most Hollywood depictions of real-life Christians, God is remarkably hard to find when the story is put on film.
Check out these movies instead:
Joni (World Wide Pictures, 1980)
Maggie's Passage (2nd Fiddle Entertainment, 2009)
The Ride (WWP, 1997)