Friday, April 1, 2011

Soul Surfer -- perspective, power and purpose

Director: Sean McNamara, 2011. (PG) 

Rarely does Hollywood prodce a film of faith, especially one with notable actors. Usually that is left for independent movie makers or churches, like the recent The Grace Card. But rarely has Hollywood had a story as compelling as that of Bethany Hamilton, the teenaged surfer who lost an arm to a shark attack and returned to surf again. The inspiring story was in the news in 2003, so most people know the basics even going into the theater. But Soul Surfer lets us experience emotionally the tragedy and its aftermath with the Hamilton family. And you can count on shedding a tear or two, along the way.

The film opens nationwide on April 8 and offers excellent family entertainment. For surfing-lovers this is a special treat. The cinematography is simply stunning. The locations are gorgeous, and are almost an advertisement for vacationing on the islands. And the hang-loose attitude is crystallised in the Hamilton family. Bethany, her parents and two brothers are shown in and around the surf constantly, and they are having fun. Though the acting may not be Oscar-material, the sheer exuberance of the filming captures the spirit of the waves. Even Carrie Underwood fares moderately OK in her movie debut.

Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb) was born to surf. With parents Tom (Dennis Quaid, Vantage Point) and Cheri (Helen Hunt), both avid surfers, and a home right on the Kauai beach, she took to the waters like a mermaid. And she was so good that she and her best-friend Alana (Lorraine Nicholson) were home-schooled to allow them time and flexibility to hone their surfing skills.

An early scene shows Bethany surfing, then coming back to the beach, quickly donning a sun-dress, and then entering a beach-side open-air church gazebo. With music led by youth group leader Sara Hill (Carrie Underwood), her family is worshipping God. This scene underscores the faith-based nature of the film, but is perhaps the only one that is ham-fisted. After this, faith is shown in a natural and believable way. But if nothing else, it serves to show the Hamilton's faith and introduces Sara.

A little later, Sara's youth group message focuses on perspective. “So, if you’re dealing with something that’s hard to handle or just plain doesn’t make sense, do whatever it takes to get some perspective. Talk to your parents, come see me, or pray about it. From a different point of view, you’ll often discover that things aren’t quite as confusing as they seem." Moreover, she introduces one of the two verses that underscore the movie's message, Jer. 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.' "

Bethany's skill earn her a prestigious endorsement and she is on the path to professional surfing when tragedy strikes. Surfing with Alana, a 14-foot tiger shark comes out of nowhere to attack. Thanks to quick thinking by her Alana's dad (Kevin Sorbo) and her own tremendous courage she somehow survives, losing her arm not her life.

A poignant scene in the hospital recovery room has Tom reading his bible while waiting for her to awake. When she does, she asks, "When can I surf?" Her dad replies, "Soon." Bethany: "How do you know?" Tom: "Because you can do all things . . ." and she completes the verse from Phil. 4:13, "through him who gives me strength." Here is the second thematic verse. Bethany's faith is her anchor. She holds onto Jesus Christ, the one who gives her strength. He gives power to those who follow him by faith. Jesus is the all-powerful God who is full of grace (Jn. 1:14).

Yet, Soul Surfer is not unrealistic and portrays Bethany honestly. Later, when she has trouble with her loss and her difficulty in doing ordinary things, like tying her bikini or slicing a tomato, she cries out "Why?" She questions this verse, since she cannot do all things through Christ any longer. She has limitations now. This is a normal reaction. What she later comes to understand is that this verse does not say we will be able to do everything through Christ. We cannot fly or swim underwater for hours, even if we try with faith. There are real limits on what we can do, even with two arms. There are more limits when we are physically disabled, like Bethany. But Christ will give us the strength we need to do all the things he wants us to do. There is grace and power sufficient for us to accomplish his plans and purposes.

Bethany returns to Sara, trying to understand why God allowed the shark attack to happen. How can the verse from Jeremiah make sense? Sara cannot answer. She is not God, but tells Bethany she simply has to believe that God intends it for good. This is the truth of Romans 8:28: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." Purpose reappears.

It is not until Bethany sees the effects of the devastation of the 2004 tsunami that she regains perspective and purpose. "Quitting" competitive surfing, she accompanies Sara and the youth group on a mission with World Vision to help those suffering in Thailand. While there, she comes face-to-face with people who have lost more than her. Here is suffering up close and personal. It humbles her. And when she helps a little boy overcome his fear of the waves, she understands that surfing is not her life, God is. But in coming to this fresh perspective, she realizes that God has made her to surf for his glory.

God's purpose for her life was to be a witness for him. The loss of her arm opened the eyes of the world to look at a teenaged American girl living in Hawaii. Though she could not compete like before, her determination and will to try gave hope to others less fortunate than herself. Not wanting it, she still become a hero for them. And she did the right thing: she pointed their eyes to see the Lord Jesus, who gave her strength. She may have questioned her identity but she found it hidden in Christ. She found her faith even more sure emerging from her period of doubt.

Toward the end, Bethany competes again at the highest level against her friend and her nemesis. Her joy is apparent, her mojo is back. She has found her purpose, regained her perspective, and is surfing in His power. She has discovered the plans he has for her.

We may not be as "fortunate" as Bethany to come into a clear understanding of God's plans for us, but we don't have to lose an arm to realize that we can serve God. We can refocus our perspective to see God's work around us, and to reorient our lives to join him in his kingdom activities. When we do this, we can find the peace that comes from walking in his path, discovering the purposes and plans he has for us. Even if it is simply serving our next-door neighbors or the homeless shelter in our city, when we minister in his strength using our God-given gifts we will find ourselves riding the wave, just like Bethany. Will we choose to be a soul surfer?

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

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