Release Date: May 28, 2011
Though Soul Surfer opens in Hawaii, the scenery and lifestyle will have a familiar feel for Australians who’ve grown up with a coastal culture. Our heroine Bethany’s introduction, “We spent more time wet than we did dry…” brought back many of my own beachside holidays. But it’s her trips to church and youth group that will remind others they’re visiting an unfamiliar world.
Soul Surfer is unashamedly Christian. The story opens with a brief introduction to the Hamilton family, headed by dad Tom (Dennis Quaid) and mum Cheri (Helen Hunt). Bethany, played by AnnaSophia Robb, is part of a family that is passionate for surfing. She and her friend Alana are talented enough to earn a sponsorship with RipCurl but a tragedy during an early morning session washes away her hopes of a place on the professional circuit. While surfing a reef with family friends she is attacked by a 4-metre tiger shark that severs her arm. What follows is a rocky recovery and an incredible tale of physical and spiritual triumph.
Soul Surfer is built around a true story and that anchor saves it from waves of the pop philosophy. The film gives a clear vision of what it’s like to be part of a community that doesn’t expect to be easy. As we enter Bethany’s church we hear the congregation singing about their God who gives and takes away, but “…My heart will always say, Lord blessed be your name.” A chorus is of course no real armour against the realities of a savage injury. Yet when Bethany struggles with her doubts in hospital, we see the benefit of raising children with a robust knowledge of God’s sufficiency:
Bethany: “When can I surf again?”
Dad: “Are you busy right now?”
Bethany: “How do you know?”
Dad: “Because you can do all things…”
Bethany: “… through Him who strengthens me.”
Christians have been rightly criticized for offering comfortless ‘God’s will’ responses to real pain. The strength of Soul Surfer’s response is that it sketches a different picture. In possibly one of the film’s weakest moments Bethany’s youth group leader tells her “… I have to believe something good will come of this,” leaving you with the distinct impression her faith depends on finding the up side to a thoroughly difficult situation. However Helen Hunt’s Cheri is the first to raise the idea that God’s ‘good’ doesn’t necessarily rest on returning Bethany to the water. When her daughter asks why she had to lose everything Cheri responds, “You didn’t lose everything, not even close.” And when dad worries that Bethany will be lost without her waves, mum stops him in his tracks:
“If she believes life is all about surfing and she can’t have that she’s going to be really, really lost.”
That’s where Soul Surfer delivers the second most important lesson a Christian family can teach. It’s not enough to tell children that God is in control and He’s working for their good. Otherwise when terrors come we leave them with the image of either a powerless or a careless Creator. We also need to convey that God’s good is much higher than ours. While we mess around at the beach, He works to draw us closer Him. God knows that He is the best gift and the source of all good things. Our Father may in fact have to take many precious things out of our hands before we find room for Him, but Bethany Hamilton and many others have found that once they learn to trust His judgment they discover “… the most important thing in the world – love, bigger than any tidal wave.”