A few months ago, I was invited to a special pastor’s screening of the new faith based film, Soul Surfer, based on the life of Bethany Hamilton, a Christian teenager surfing champ whose life was dramatically changed by a shark attack. Like many Christian movies today, it arrived with heavy marketing to churches and leaders. There are curriculum packs and outreach tools, even a special resource website.
This is a well made film. It has top notch actors and production quality. It accurately portrays a true story of a young girl with a strong faith. Also, the movie will make you want to pick up a surfboard (now on my to do list). Is it a positive, uplifting, inspiring film? Absolutely. Will it leave you feeling good and even a little misty eyed? Definitely.
But is this a film that will help youth grow in their faith? Does it communicate a clear message about God? Like with any major release film, there was a lot of wrangling between the family and the filmmakers about how much Christian content to include in the film.
I understand that all faith based films must navigate a fine balance in their handling of religion. Being too overt can offend people and alienate audiences. Being too bland or compromising can upset Christian viewers.
But movies and media are powerful tools for shaping how we view God and faith. While there were many overtly Christian elements (a worship scene, a youth pastor preaching, quoting Bible verses, praying throughout the film), in the end, I felt that the film exacerbated a culturally diminished view of God’s nature that leads us to a more self-centered view of faith.
A few years ago Christian Smith and Melinda Denton did a study of the religious beliefs of American teenagers for their book “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers” (2005). Through a series of interviews with teens, they found that there was a common thread in the view of American youth’s view of God, that they called moralistic therapeutic deism described through the following principles:
- A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
This is the safe, culturally palatable God that wants you to be a caring person and not be mean to others. It’s the God makes you feel good when you are sad. He’s the God that helps you win Grammy awards, hit home runs and win surfing championships, but doesn’t ask that much from you. He’s the god that helps you through your problems and helps you find the silver lining in every situation.
"In short, God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process."
While the story had a great opportunity to show God’s intention to shaping our lives through both good times and trials, throughout the film I found that God came across as a distant, unapproachable figure who is there, but never is never really involved. The characters pray, but never experience God in a personal way. In response to tragedy, they never point to God’s providence or control. At one key point in the story (as you can see in the trailer) the youth pastor figure played by Carrie Underwood says “I don’t know why things happen, but I know everything will come together.What if Bethany had not recovered, or never have been able to surf again? What does that say about God when everything doesn’t work out?
The lasting message of the film was to just hang in there, trust in your inner strength and things will work out in the end. It tells us that tragedies are there to make us better, happier people – not to trust God more. It says that as our lives are most fulfilled when we find happiness and love, instead of finding joy in carrying out God’s purpose even through hardship and trials.
From what I’ve read from the real Bethany Hamilton, I think she would have preferred God to be the star of the movie rather than her. Nevertheless, I am glad to see her story being told. Hopefully it will lead others to dig deeper into her story and hear her testimony in full. And perhaps even experience the God who is good in every situation and worthy of our worship no matter the outcome.
More resources about Bethany Hamilton: