Among the new crop of movies this weekend is “Soul Surfer”. It tells the story of Bethany Hamilton, a surfer and a young woman of deep Christian faith who lost an arm surfing when she was thirteen due to a shark attack. Incredibly, she was back on her surfboard a month later and has since won several surfing championships. (I first came across her story when I bought my daughter a like-new Bethany Hamilton surfer girl NIV Bible a year ago at the Goodwill for a buck. I don’t know if my daughter read much of the text of scripture, but she read all the Bethany Hamilton bio-bits.)
The critical response to the film has been mixed. But Roger Moore’s comment caught my eye, for he refers to “Soul Surfer” as “The best faith-based film ever made….” The quote starts out promising. “The best…” But then it goes south: “faith-based film.” In case you didn’t know, there is a pall over that term in the industry. It is akin to holding up a CD and saying “This is the best … Polka album ever made.” Oh, polka. Gotcha. Oh, faith-based. Guess I’ll check out “Rango”.
But hold on. Just what is a “faith-based film” anyways? How is this term being used?
First off, it doesn’t take a genius to guess that “faith” here is synonymous with “Christian”. (One reason: just consider the many brilliant films that have been made by Iranian directors, many of them of deep Muslim faith. Surely Moore isn’t stating categorically that “Soul Surfer” is greater than all these films.)
But what about “Chariots of Fire”” Is that a faith-based film?
How about “Bella”? That was a film intentionally made by a director intending to promote his Christian convictions through high art, and “Bella” is, at least very capable if not great. (Is “Soul Surfer” better than “Bella”? Don’t know since I haven’t seen “Soul Surfer”.)
And what about “The Passion of the Christ”? I remember Lucy from The Charlie Brown Christmas Special admitting that “Charlie Brown may be a blockhead, but he did get a nice tree.” Likewise, Mel Gibson may be a blockhead, but he did make a great film. I’m also pretty sure it was better than “Soul Surfer”. And surely it qualifies as faith-based if any film does.
I’m not done. Director Brad Bird is a Christian and his film “The Iron Giant” is one of the most outstanding pieces of animation in the last twenty years. If you don’t burst into tears when the Iron Giant resolutely states “I am not a gun” then you’re the one made of iron. Among its many themes “The Iron Giant” includes human depravity, a Christ figure’s sacrifice and even his triumphant resurrection. (Just thinking about it brings chills to me even now.) This is a faith-based film if any film is.
But wait. What about “Gran Torino”? Sure Clint Eastwood is not a Christian, but this film presents one of the most memorable Christ-figures in cinematic history. So can we let it in the backdoor?
Actually, when Moore talks of “faith-based” I think he means something quite specific, and unpacking the distinctions helps illumine the negative image. They’re the kind of films that were funded by churches and para-church agencies. They get screened in churches, in part because they’ve already been vetted for sex, violence and language by “family values” organizations like “Focus on the Family”. They often have product tie-ins with merchandise aimed at evangelicals … like Bibles. And while they have brief excursions into the dark night of the soul, or at least a brief flirtation with the twilight, they quickly bring the viewer back to their triumphant, hopeful message of faith and the promise in tomorrow. And for this reason they leave many viewers unsatisfied, left with the nagging thought that life is more complex than all that.
With this in mind I read with interest Roger Ebert’s review which included the following:
My problem with “Soul Surfer” is that it makes it look too simple. Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb) has a loving family of professional surfers and a big, friendly dog. She lives in walking distance of the beach. She was and is a committed churchgoer and got great support from her spiritual leaders. She was an indomitable optimist with a fierce competitive spirit.
But there had to be more to it than that. I applaud her faith and spirit. I give her full credit for her determination. I realize she is a great athlete. But I feel something is missing. There had to be dark nights of the soul. Times of grief and rage. The temptation of nihilism. The lure of despair. Can a 13-year-old girl lose an arm and keep right on smiling?
Certainly it is possible. Maybe Bethany Hamilton is very special. Maybe she sensed God’s guiding in her life in a truly extraordinary way to the extent that even losing an arm was not grounds for anger and doubt. In that case there is a very small audience that can relate. But what about those who lose their arm and don’t get back on the surfboard? What about those who have both arms and could never get on the surfboard to begin with?