April 11, 2011 by Stacy McDonald
The following review refers only to the Hollywood movie, Soul Surfer. It is not a critique of the real Bethany Hamilton, her testimony, or her ministry to others.
Soul Surfer, the popular new movie produced by secular group TriStar Pictures, is all the rage this week. Heavily marketed to Christians, the film tells the dramatic story of 13-year-old Bethany Hamilton (played by 17-year-old AnnaSophia Rob), a Christian teen surfer in Hawaii who lost her arm in 2003 after a shark attack. Soul Surfer demonstrates Bethany’s courageous journey back into daily life, particularly surfing the waves she desperately loves.
While the film makes it clear that Bethany is a Christian, the story seems to focus most heavily on her strong will, and determination and passion for surfing. As an example, arriving late for a seaside church service, Bethany throws a cover-up over her wet bikini, and takes a seat. As family and friends finish singing “Blessed Be Your Name,” Bethany continues to gaze out over the ocean, seeming to long for the waves. One of the first questions she asks her father after the accident is, “When can I surf again?”
In a day when the dysfunctional family is portrayed in movies and television as “the norm,” the Hamilton’s close-knit, loving family is refreshing. However, Bethany displays character issues that, for the most part, seem to go unaddressed by her parents. After breaking her commitment to go on a mission trip, so that she can train for a surfing competition, Bethany complains to her mother that her youth pastor (Carrie Underwood) is trying to make her feel guilty for not going. Her mother’s expression shows some disapproval; however, rather than discuss with Bethany the problem with broken promises, she tells the young teen, “It’s your call.”
All children sin, so, we should expect to see sin dealt with in the story of any “real” family. But I have to wonder if the movie accurately portrayed Bethany’s real interaction with her parents. Bethany and her best friend, Alana, dressed only in skimpy bikinis, sneak out one night while the family is sleeping to attend a beach party where there is lots of partying, older boys, music, bikinis, moonlight, and midnight fireworks.
The next morning, when Mom says something that indicates that she knows the girls snuck out, Bethany answers simply, “Sorry, Mom; but, I really wanted to go night surfing.”
Bethany’s mom asks her daughter why she didn’t just ask. Dad, seeming to side with Bethany, walks by and casually says, “Because she knew you’d say no.” Bethany questions her mother, “Would you have let me go?” Mom falters, “No…I don’t know.” The lack of fatherly protection from Bethany’s Christian dad, as portrayed in this scene, is disappointing, giving the impression that “cool” parents are hands-off in their approach toward their teenaged children.
Even though Bethany is only 13 years old, we see no repercussions from this incident; instead, everyone heads out the door with a cheerful kiss and goodbye. There is no discussion of danger, no talk of deception, no rebuke, and no consequence.
The immodesty throughout the film is significant, as nearly the entire movie takes place on the beach where most of the women wear skimpy swimwear and the men go shirtless. The surfing scenes are particularly problematic as bikini-clad surfers are filmed curving around the waves from various compromising angles.
Though there are no “sex scenes,” the nearly constant display of beautiful, tan, near-naked young Hollywood actresses still make sex an issue. If a man would find it difficult not to lust sitting at a crowded beach watching beautiful women in bikinis walk by, then he will probably have a hard time with this movie.
Pornography is a real issue and men who are struggling with this sin know the importance of avoiding giving provision to the flesh.
But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts. (Romans 13:14)
It is important to recognize that we live in a sex-saturated culture. Many men, Christian men, struggle daily with internet pornography. For instance, Promise Keepers conducted a survey after one of their stadium events, and one of the most troubling discoveries was that over 50% of the men in attendance admitted to being involved with pornography within one week after attending the event. Many men and boys (and some women), even those without pornography issues, may find this movie a stumbling block.
In one scene, Bethany’s best friend, Alana Blanchard (played by 20-year-old Lorraine Nicholson), poses in a string bikini for a photo shoot, something Bethany was scheduled to be involved in too, before the accident. Alana strikes various sultry poses, as the male photographer snaps pictures of her with her surf board, telling her how beautiful she is. A group of admiring teen boys stands in the sidelines watching, offering cat calls, which Alana seems to welcome. Afterward, she changes her bikini on the beach behind a couple of towels held up by friends, while the young men look on.
After the accident, Bethany has to learn to do everything with only one arm. One brief scene shows her from behind, with a close-up of her bare back, struggling to tie her bikini. While this surely shows one of the many new struggles in her life, was it really necessary to portray her challenges in this way? Does anyone wonder if this might be problematic for just about any boy or man watching?
At youth group, Bethany’s youth pastor tries to encourage the kids by quoting Jeremiah 29:11 (one of only two Scripture verses mentioned in the movie). She uses the NIV version, which says, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” Bethany seems to grasp this message.
Bethany’s life appears to be going just the way she wants: Sunshine, surfing, and good times with friends and family. “Can you believe we get to do this every day?” Then tragedy strikes.
As a mother, my heart sunk the terrible moment Bethany was attacked by the shark. I felt the panic when Bethany’s mother dropped the phone on the ground and raced to get to the hospital. I experienced her father’s pain when he heard the news that it was in fact his daughter who had been attacked by a shark. I suffered the crushing fear as the emergency room doors shut on Bethany’s mother and family as doctors scrambled to save Bethany’s life.
Though much of the acting was mediocre, the entire rescue scene was very well done and was, in my opinion, the best part of the movie. I had to remind myself that Bethany was going to live.
Again, two Scripture verses are mentioned in the movie. The first verse was quoted by the youth pastor before the attack, and the second verse is mentioned by Bethany’s father. While Bethany lay recovering in the hospital after the accident, she asks her father when she can surf again. He encourages her with Philippians 4:13. However, it’s worth mentioning that he quotes a Bible version that uses “Him” instead of “Christ.” He smiles at Bethany and says, “You can do all things through ‘Him’ who gives you strength.”
During her first attempt to compete after the accident, Bethany wipes out and has to be pulled to shore. She tells her father, “I can’t do this any more.” She seems to be quitting surfing for good, as she gives her surf boards away to some little girls who ask for her autograph. Her father is upset by her decision; however, her mother seems relieved, wanting Bethany to realize that there is more to life than surfing.
Bethany winds up going on another mission trip with her youth group. As she sees the terrible suffering of tsunami victims in Southeast Asia, she appears to begin to see beyond herself. One woman tearfully describes to Bethany what her village has been through and how she’s lost everything. Bethany gets choked up and walks away from the scene. Her youth pastor (Underwood) tells her, “Don’t be sorry for compassion – it can move you to do amazing things.”
It seems Bethany is beginning to understand that “surfing isn’t the most important thing in the world.” But, when she gets home, she decides to surf again; presumably, after reading letters from those who have been inspired by her example, she wants to inspire the handicapped, or those who have been through difficult trials.
However, in the movie, the message seems to be if she can do it, so can they, rather than directing them to the Source of her strength, a relationship with Her Savior. At this point, if the movie was intended to show Bethany’s Christian faith, it would have been easy to make clear. Perhaps quoting another Bible verse would have been appropriate: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:10).
While one could certainly get caught up in the emotional drama of this powerful story, we need to try to evaluate the “film” for what it is, which is simply a Hollywood movie “based on a true story.” Soul Surfer was certainly “inspiring,” in the same way other “tragedy to triumph” stories are inspiring (see Ice Castles); but, it was not the Christian faith-builder it’s been promoted to be.
While Soul Surfer pointed to family, kindness, and determination, it did not point to Jesus. There was no Gospel or redemptive message in the movie. For the record, I don’t think a movie has to be produced by Christians, or be about Christians, to glorify God. At the same time, I think it can be produced by Christians, even be about Christians, and still fail to glorify God.
A secular movie review I read didn’t seem to even realize there was supposed to be a “Christian message,” and acknowledged what so many Christians are failing to see, that Soul Surfer has the typical “athlete-overcomes-obstacle story line.” If the secular crowd doesn’t even notice or acknowledge a Christian message, then how exactly is Jesus getting the glory?
Regardless of Bethany Hamilton’s true life and testimony, the movie depicts a determined young girl, with a supportive family and friends, who refuses to give up her dream of surfing. I saw only brief nods to Christianity, even during deeply emotional scenes. Except for Bethany’s faint cry for help from Jesus as she is losing blood and being raced to the hospital, no one ever prays or speaks of Christ. The only other prayer that takes place in the movie is when the Hamilton family says grace before a meal (at Bethany’s prompting).
At the end of the movie, when asked by a reporter if she wished now that she had never gone surfing that day, I’m not sure what I expected Bethany to say. But with all the hype about the movie being a powerful “Christian testimony,” I guess I expected something distinctly…well, Christian. What Bethany said could have been said by a girl of any religion, “I can embrace more people with one arm than I ever could with two.”
Bethany also says, “If you have faith, anything is possible.” Most religions would agree with this as well. Some will ponder the object of her faith; but, how many will miss it all together?
It seems, too often, Hollywood uses Christians for free marketing. If they can produce a movie that shows enough flesh to sell in the secular market, all they have to do is convince the Christians that it has a godly message and we’ll find a way to excuse the immodesty.
First, they’ll need a good moving story (we Christians like to cry…thinking like a movie promoter here). If they can find a story where someone does an amazing good deed, or an athlete (we love our sports too) becomes a hero by overcoming some huge obstacle–especially if it’s true–they’ve hit the jackpot. Now all they have to do is throw us a few bones to make it “Christian” enough for us to tell our friends and buy the tickets.
In the case of Soul Surfer, all they needed were two verses, a female youth pastor, a worship song, and the flash of a Bible. Throw in a deeply moving (true) story about a sweet Christian girl who pulls herself up by her bootstraps (or bikini straps) and we’re hooked.
[Note: I don't believe that Scripture has to be used in a film in order for God to be glorified. I also don't think a movie has to present the Gospel, talk about Jesus, or be about a Christian family. However, Christian groups seem to use the fact that Hollywood threw us a few bones in Soul Surfer as a reason for calling it a “Christian film" and using it as a "ministry tool."
As Christians, we should think a little deeper than this...
Lifeway Christian Stores is now selling “Soul Surfer Church Kits," complete with ready-made sermons and Powerpoint presentations!]
Anyone raising daughters today knows what a challenge it is to teach them to be modest and discreet in our sexually charged culture. Instead of baby dolls, hopscotch, and storybooks, today’s little girls have push-up bras (for 7-year-olds); teen sex symbols who act more like strippers than role models (on the Disney Channel, no less), and kiddy pole dancing classes. One obsessed mother even gives her 8-year-old daughter regular Botox injections to keep her “looking young.” Hollywood continues to sexualize young girls and Christians continue to watch it…and give their money to perpetuate it.
I take seriously the charge to teach my daughters to be chaste; and chastity includes modesty (1 Timothy 2:9, Titus 2:4-5). I want them to know that it’s important that we live out our theology practically and faithfully. So, what message do you think we’re sending our daughters if we promote a film that totally disregards modesty and treats Bethany as a glamorized spiritual role model?
Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1)
I received the following from one of my daughters expressing her frustration with this very issue:
Mom, I don’t understand. Parents tell their daughters they’re supposed to dress modestly, and then they go crazy over this movie, proving that modesty isn’t really all that important to them. It’s like girls at church are supposed to be modest, but it’s OK for boys at church to watch girls who are practically naked, as long as it’s in a movie. Modesty is either important or it’s not. If boys aren’t moved by a girl in a bikini, then what are they moved by? And why do I have to dress modestly?
I have to agree with her. The double standard is glaring. We send a conflicted message if we ask our daughters to dress modestly and then take their brothers to watch girls parade around in bikinis (the equivalent of their bra and underwear) for nearly two hours, and call that an awesome testimony. What this models is hypocrisy, and our girls will get this message loud and clear. Either modesty is important or it’s not. Scripture doesn’t change because a good movie comes out.
Christians may not all agree on what is “modest”; but, at what point do we call something nakedness? Can we get any more naked than a bikini without being completely nude? As I’ve shared, raising chaste daughters in today’s culture isn’t an easy task. Therefore, we Christians need to support one another, so that our testimony is consistent, and so that God is glorified in our midst. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we jointly promoted purity and loveliness in all areas of life – including our entertainment choices?
When we teach young women to be chaste, they should expect us to be consistent with it ourselves. Soul Surfer contradicts what many are trying to teach their daughters…and their sons—what Christians are called to teach their children.
Soul Surfer could have been a good, family-friendly film, even without a distinctly “Christian” message. If it hadn’t been for the lack of clothing, my husband and I would have been happy to take our children to see it; we’re used to discussing worldview with them, and pointing out problematic scenes in movies. I even thought the shark scene was done tastefully enough for our younger children to see. Afterward, we could have discussed how when we are weak, God is strong; and how the real Bethany has a great opportunity to proclaim God’s goodness. However, because of the almost constant nakedness, I can’t recommend it to anyone.
Slapping a catchy “Christian” label on something doesn’t make it “Christian.” Likewise, a movie can glorify God without ever actually mentioning Christ’s name. Sadly, in my opinion, Soul Surfer fails to do either.
Click HERE for Part 2 of Beaches, Bikinis, and…Bibles?. In Part 2 of this series, Carmon Friedrich addresses the way Hollywood and other media outlets exploit the Christian market, and how Christians can exercise discernment about this ploy to plunder their pocketbooks while undermining their principles.
Download a free copy of Pastor Jeff Pollard’s excellent booklet Christian Modesty and the Public Undressing of America.