In our family we have a tradition of sacred Fridays that end with a family movie night. We all cozy up on our oversized couch and sink our teeth into a movie that the kids have chosen (or sometimes we help choose 🙂 ). Someone had recommended Soul Surfer to us and so movie night last weekend was Soul Surfer, the true story of a 13 year old named Bethany Hamilton that had her arm bitten off by a shark. Through the tragedy, she became a very strong witness to Christ’s presence in her life. Her story has been chronicled by this book, she has become a national celebrity and been honored with an MTV Teen Choice Award and became a professional surfer. All the while, professing her love and trust in Jesus Christ. Her life turned out different than she expected but she still trusted God with her life and wasn’t poisoned by anger or bitterness. And as a result her life has turned out beautiful and she’s been a blessing to many.
The movie, Soul Surfer, tells this tale. And as I sat down to watch the movie, I could feel the cynical Scott take center stage. “This movie is going to blow,” I told myself. It will be melodramatic, overly pulsating with Hollywood cheese, and so full of trying to be Christian that it won’t tell a good story. Because let’s face it…there have been a TON of horrible “Christian” movies. Sometimes Christian films try so hard to have a message of Christ that they just don’t tell a compelling or realistic story. And as a result, the cynic in me wanted to throw out the film before watching it. But you know what? Soul Surfer is a great movie, and it taught me a few things about my cynical lens I can view Christian art with sometimes.
In the 70’s and 80’s, in a decision that shows the ways we had been polluted by the modernist mindset that divided Christianity into a merely private sphere that couldn’t influence the external sphere, Christians responded by being “in the world but not of it.” Ask most Christians and they will tell you that this phrase is in the bible- it is not. (Great article about where the phrase actually comes from here). It belongs to one of those Christian cultural aphorisms that we believe God must have said because it seems so true. Want another one? How about “God helps those who help themselves.” Really? And what book is that in? Didn’t think so. It actually is part of Greek mythology…read it here. The reality is that God wants us “in the world” because we are called to mirror Christ, to be a blessing to His creation here and now and not just wait for heaven. Don’t mistake what I’m saying…we are called to be agents of change in our culture and not merely go with the flow of a pop-culture that averts things that are of Christ. But we’re called to be agents of change in the world here and now. Today.
So back to the 70’s and 80’s, the church seemed to decide the real world, and real art, was too dangerous. So we invented Christian art. Real films? Too much sin. We need Christian movies. Real music? Too much Satan. We need Christian music. We made “Christian” an adjective instead of a noun like it should be. Like we can take a real thing, pour a little “Christian” over the top like sugar or saccharine, and then wow! Christian stuff comes out! The reality is that most of the movies, the art, the music, the “whatever” that has a label “Christian” in front of it has done the real art form a bit of a disservice. You can find me sacrilegious or disrespectful but this is my experience. So I went to Amy Grant & Michael W Smith concert as a kid. I watched the Left Behind movies. I tried to hide behind “Christian stuff” but the real world beckoned and my relationship with Christ seemed to be at odds with the rest of the world. But if we believe that God really created the world, really created us, really made things “good” in His image, than everything here on earth that is good and beautiful and true and valuable was created by God to embody His goodness and show a future picture of God’s good reign.
But as a result, now it feels like the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Most Christians I know and respect laugh about Christian music. They would never frequent a gallery with a showing of Christian art. And as far as Soul Surfer or any other movie that is purported to have a Christian message, they would stay away. We’ve done such a good job of saying that the word isn’t an adjective that we now poo-poo anything that calls itself Christian. And sometimes this is an unhealthy bias. The reality is that as disciples who seek to mirror Christ, the things we digest can slowly taint us. Though God can be seen in everything, there is nothing wrong with filling our lives with things that will build us up and not tear us down. Want to see the latest Cohen brothers film or a horror movie? Sure..do it. God will still love you and your witness to Christ isn’t ruined. But remember your mind is like a sponge and some of the art we digest isn’t edifying or helping to build us up. Paul talks about it here…we should drink of the source of Christ. Stuff that builds us up. And doesn’t fill our mind with things that are not of God. I had this feeling after seeing Munich or Kill Bill or No Country for Old Men. Good movies? Sure…well acted and well directed and well told stories. But the images they left behind? Very dark.
What did the critics of Soul Surfer think? Well they hated it! One said, “The film that follows is thin and frothy, though watch out for that final sentimental upsurge. It could drag and lift you against your will.” Another wrote, “Unless you like your inspiration in heavy-handed doses, you might be better off watching the real thing – on YouTube.” And lastly this reviewer nailed it, “An amazing true story for sure, but this earnest dramatization is so wholesome, it feels like being stuck in a never-ending Activia advertisement.”
Don’t get me wrong. There are places in this film where more nuance could be used, where more drama could have unfolded. It was so wholesome that it turned people off. As humans we want pain! Give me suffering! Give me an unhappy ending! But this girl, with her one arm and her passion for Jesus that doesn’t wane through her struggles? Impossible!
For me, I was left moved by the film. Moved by this example of this young girl who trusted God. We had a good conversation after the film about how things turn out different than we expect in life but God can still be trusted. Yes life can be painful but God is still good. He still loves us. Want my proof of this? You can see that here. For this movie night, wholesome worked just fine. The movie was moving and actually not very heavy-handed in its Christian message. But the impact for Christ this girl had was extraordinary. Check it out.