Soul Surfer: Sharks ‘n Jesus

A few months ago, I went to see the movie Soul Surfer. I was drawn both by my love of watching other people surf and my love of teen movies. Soul Surfer looked like it would be promising on both accounts.

Oh, before I say more–after I saw it, I went out and told everyone I knew all of my opinions about it, and they all looked at me blankly and said, “What’s Soul Surfer?” Apparently the marketing campaign did not reach my peers the way it reached me, so, in case you haven’t heard of it either–Soul Surfer is a movie based on the life of Bethany Hamilton, the young competitive surfer whose arm was eaten by a shark when she was 13 years old. Remarkably, she continues to surf (and win) at a competitive level with one arm. (By the way, “soul surfer” is a surfing term for someone who surfs for the love of it, not for money.)

And, okay, when I was in the Peace Corps I lived near the ocean. I took surf lessons and I went out a lot of weekends and tried to surf. It’s really hard. The physical strain of paddling, the strength required to push up to standing, and the timing of figuring out when to get into the wave–it’s hard. With two arms. So from a purely physical standpoint, let’s take a moment to say that Bethany Hamilton is a total badass for even getting up on a wave with one arm.

Soul Surfer Movie poster Anyway. So. Soul Surfer, the movie. I saw it with my friend Anna, and about half an hour in we glanced at each other and said, “I didn’t realize this was a Christian movie!” It isn’t, exactly, a Christian movie, but it is definitely a movie about a Christian family, in a way that is much more explicit than in most popular teen movies. Carrie Underwood plays Bethany’s youth minister, and there are scenes where they attend church. There’s a scene where Bethany’s father reads her an inspirational Bible quote while she’s in the hospital. All in all, there’s a total of maybe ten minutes of explicitly Christian content in the film.

Personally, I am not a Christian. I often cringe at Christian “inspirational” shows and movies, though I sometimes watch for entertainment value. (See: whenever Walker, Texas Ranger decides to have an explicit moral to an episode.) But I had no problem with Soul Surfer. Like I mentioned, Bethany Hamilton is a total badass in my book. If she says Jesus Christ helped her become such a badass, who am I to tell her otherwise?

After I saw the movie, I read an article talking about the studio’s reluctance to make such a “Christian” movie. Apparently they toyed with changes like, no joke, Photoshopping the word “Bible” off the cover the the Bible her dad reads. They also thought about changing the character of her youth minister to some kind of generic youth group leader. I’m glad they didn’t do that. Even though I’m not a Christian, I don’t have a problem with people reading the Bible. Frankly, it offends me that a movie studio would think that I would.

I really enjoyed the film. It was, yes, inspirational. The surf scenes were cool. The shark attack scene was not too graphic for my delicate sensibilities. And I’m pleased that Kevin Sorbo is getting work.

So, naturally, I decided to check out the book. (I was 14th on the hold list for it at the library, so clearly I was not the only person in town inspired by the movie.) It’s called Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board, and it was written by Bethany Soul Surfer BookHamilton with Rick Bundschuh  and Sheryl Berk. She says that she talked for hours with Rick and he helped her turn those conversations into a book. The quality is about what you’d expect of a book written by a fourteen-year-old girl, and I don’t mean to be unkind. It’s a great story, but it’s written in a very simple, straightforward way. It is also a lot more Christian in content than the movie was. (I believe it is marketed as “inspirational” literature.) Christianity is clearly a big part of Bethany’s life. It isn’t proselytizing, exactly. It’s just part of her life. She gets up, she prays, she surfs. God had a plan for her, and it involved her arm getting eaten by a shark so that she could be a role model. I’ve never been attacked by a shark, so I’m certainly not going to tell her what she should believe.

The movie is pretty similar to the book, although it tightens things up to make it flow faster (and apparently invented a surf-nemesis for Bethany). The real story is pretty amazing, and elements that I assumed were made up for dramatic conflict apparently actually happened.

Overall, I’d say: check out the movie (if you’re into surfing, or have been wondering what Helen Hunt has been up to lately), pass on the book (unless you want it for your church youth group or something), and check out this interview with the real Bethany, featuring amazing footage of her surfing.

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