I’ve been seeing hyped up advertisements for Soul Surfer on Beliefnet.com for months, yesterday I finally had the chance to watch it. It’s based on the true story of Bethany Hamilton, a surfer whose arms was taken by a shark but who managed to persevere as a professional story. Is it inspiring? Moving? Touching? Yes, absolutely. It’s also very Christian.
Regardless of your religious persuasion, Soul Surfer touches on some of the eternal problems of existence: Why is there pain and suffering in the world? Why do bad things happen to good people? Bethany Hamilton’s struggles with these issues help us understand why the idea of God is so comforting, and yet also why the Christian explanation of loss is ultimately condescending and potentially debilitating.
From the outset, Soul Surfer makes it clear that this is going to be a Christian movie. After some light surfing, Bethany finds herself at a church youth group where the presenter shares one particularly foreshadowing quote:
“You give and take away, blessed be your name. Things can be confusing, whenever you’re dealing with anything that’s too hard to handle… or doesn’t seem to make much sense…get a new perspective. I’ve always been comforted by Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Taking this quote completely out of context, it sounds like God is promising to take care of us, never harm us, and that He is always working towards our betterment. But he’s actually talking to Jeremiah. Not us. And what does he make Jeremiah do?
Jeremiah was attacked by his own brothers,beaten and put into the stocks by a priest and false prophet, imprisoned by the king, threatened with death, thrown into a cistern by Judah’s officials, and opposed by a false prophet. When Nebuchadnezzar seized Jerusalem in 586 BC, he ordered that Jeremiah be freed from prison and treated well; at least that’s how the story ends.
God’s little projects in the Old Testament are almost always forced against their will to do His bidding. They suffer poverty, alienation, loss, and then are forgotten or discarded by God (this is true of all the prophets).
At any rate, back to Soul Surfer: these good, cute, home-schooled Christian girls sneak out of the house to meet boys for a midnight swim. There’s an ominous mood but nothing happens yet… the next day, they are surfing again. Just after the kind of lame comment, “Can you believe we get to come out here everyday?” Boom. Shark bite. Bethany loses an arm. The rest of the movie is her learning to deal with her new life.
The basic point raised is that God has a PLAN: in the context of the movie, God took Bethany’s arm so she could become a “soul surfer”, or a semi-mystical, psychic surfer who can use their sixth sense to feel when a big wave it coming. She uses this new magic ability to (almost) win in the final tournament, defeating her enemies and basically proving that God is Good and that she lost her arm for a purpose.
But wait a moment! Although people like Bethany are inspiring examples, what does this say about other cripples who lost limbs in tragic accidents? Do they ALL become spiritually fulfilled, contributing members of society? Bethany is blessed to come from a supportive family who seems relatively well-off. But she is the exception, not the rule. What about the surfers who lost limbs and did not find inner peace or later success – the many that did have to give up surfing. Did God also take their limbs? What about the surfers who were attacked by sharks and died? God had no plans for them?
The truth is, people are different, and SOME people are amazing. And yes, faith may help some people recover. People with incredible faith may be able to believe that their accident was for a purpose, and have the necessary positive attitude to keep going, rather than break down in depression. I won’t deny that it may be absolutely ESSENTIAL when dealing with loss, pain or sickness, to believe in a higher purpose, or that God has a plan. And believing in that MAY have real, powerful impact. I also believe, however, that religious faith is strongest in family’s with dangerous occupations: policemen, firemen, soldiers, surfers… facing the possibility of loss and death every day you say goodbye to your loved ones. Doesn’t this simply imply that God is a human construct devised to help people deal with their pain and loss?
If everything bad that happens is really God interfering in your life, then we’ve got to extend that same condition to everyone. If, as Christians believe, there is only one God, does he only interfere in Christian lives and ignore everyone else? Is he only the “cause” of suffering when that suffering bears spiritual fruit (other cases of suffering, which did not end well, being chalked up to natural causes?) Does God not also love the shark that took Bethany’s arm? (It was caught and killed in the movie… providing a kind of closure).
Are natural disasters God’s punishment?
There’s actually a weird scene in the beginning of Soul Surfer that puts some of this into a greater context; Bethany was SUPPOSED to go to Mexico to feed children with her Youth Group, but she decides she doesn’t want to – she’s recently been sponsored and wants to surf instead. Did God PUNISH her ‘selfish’ actions by taking her arm? (In exactly the same way that God punished Jonah, having him swallowed by a whale, when he refused to go on his own mission?)
Later, after losing an arm, Bethany does go on a mission – to Thailand, to help out after the 2004 Tsunami. There she teaches some kids to surf. Awesome. So God in his infinite wisdom, first punished the Thais (who are very religious, but not Christian) with a tsunami AND took Bethany’s arm SO THAT she could go and bring Jesus to little kids who’d just lost everything they had. (I hate to think of all the supplies that could have been purchased with the money spent on plane tickets to get a bunch of white, inexperienced teenagers to Thailand to spread the Gospel).
How about the Japanese, in the more recent earthquake and tsunami? Also punished by God? What about, then, 2011’s many horribly devastating hurricanes that continue to pummel America’s southern states? Many have lost houses, pets, family members, limbs… Is this all part of God’s plan to make us more spiritually aware?
Is faith in God the only cure for loss?
Bethany will later ask, in a tender moment, “How can this be God’s plan for me? I don’t understand?” she is answered, “I don’t know why terrible things happen to us
sometimes, but I have to believe that somemthing good is going to come out of it.”
And perhaps this is the moral lesson of Soul Surfer. Of course we have to believe that something good is going to come of it. The belief that something good will come of our suffering is psychologically healthy. It is not, however, the same as the belief that God causes our suffering.
At the same time, it may also be harder for some people to accept loss because of their belief in God. Rather than accepting that “shit happens” and learning to deal, believers need to wrap their heads around the idea that God loves them, causes their loss deliberately, and has some plan in mind for them. For Bethany – who already knew exactly what she wanted to do in her life – this was not so difficult. For others, who lose a limb before they have any idea what their passion or calling is, God’s plan may seem much more opaque.
One Final Point
How difficult would it be for the judges to grade fairly; to NOT give a little higher score to the girl with one arm, because it’s harder for her, because they’re MORE impressed that she can do it with one arm. I know this sounds cynical, and Bethany is still an amazing person. However, even though in the movie she’s very careful not to be given special privilege or unfair treatment, her friends still stick out for her – one of them cheats and tackles out the competition (the one girl who doesn’t coddle her). “We’ve got enough… let her have it!” her friend says. Is she truly, objectively a better surfer than the ones she’s beaten? Or did they perhaps push themselves a little less hard; were the judges a little more generous?