If you haven’t read Part 1, please click HERE first!
Part 2 of Beaches, Bikinis, and…Bibles?
Last night, I took my daughter to a movie that has been heavily promoted by Christian outlets (you can read a positive review by Focus on the Family’s PluggedIn Online here, along with some of their caveats), and praised by Christian friends. Soul Surfer is the story of Bethany Hamilton, a Christian girl who bravely faced a horrible accident, a shark attack that cost her one of her arms, a tragedy made even more difficult because she was a competitive surfer.
I remember when the accident happened in 2003, and because 13-year-old Bethany was homeschooled, it was a poignant story for me; I was among those inspired by this young girl’s courage and hopeful that her trial would be a testimony to the Gospel of Christ as she had a platform to share her faith in Jesus to so many people. Looking at her website, Bethany is very open about her Christian faith. However, this message is not strongly presented in the movie.
There were lots of mixed messages in Soul Surfer. Because the real story of Bethany has elements that were left out of the movie, it is hard to criticize it without people coming to the real Bethany’s defense. I have not read Bethany’s book about her experiences, and looking at her website I am impressed by her desire to give thanks to God in Christ for what He has done in her life.
The concerns Stacy and I have about the movie have nothing to do with the real Bethany and her genuine testimony, though she and her family, according to stories I’ve read, seem to be pleased with their portrayal in the film. Our concerns stem from the watered-down message of the movie. It is syncretistic with worldly philosophies, from the gratuitous portrayal of lots of tanned and sexy bodies, to the ephemeral references to “faith” and “love,” to the humanistic message of personal success and fulfillment, unmoored from the importance of doing all things for the glory of God (I Corinthians 10:31).
In this movie, it seems that the glory mostly goes to a girl who refuses to give up in the face of adversity, a feel-good message, but one that could be presented by any secular motivational speaker.
Slip Sliding Away
In Part 1, Stacy already mentioned the dearth of real Christian content in Soul Surfer. Some places in the film almost get it right, but miss the mark by a mile by misapplying Scripture (see the PluggedIn review linked above for ways the non-Christian producers attempted to further minimize the Christian content).
For example, when Bethany first decides to try to compete after losing her arm, her father tells her it won’t be easy, and she says, “I don’t need easy, I just need possible.” When he replies, “With you, anything’s possible,” it evokes for believers Matthew 19:26, where Jesus says, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Because we are so used to sewage coming from Hollywood, it’s easy to embrace a movie that shows a family that goes to church, talks about faith, and prays before eating. But, using a sliding scale for what we promote as a “strong Christian message” is where we get into dangerous territory.
If our standard is based on something being better than bad, we are building our house on the sand. Just because this story involves beaches doesn’t mean we are safe on that kind of shifting foundation. Our foundation is the unchanging Word of God. Our Lord said in Matthew 7:24: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (emphasis added).
There were several places I noted “listen to your heart,” self-esteem, or personal fulfillment messages. When Bethany had given up her dream of surfing after a disappointing experience in her first competition after losing her arm, then begins to think she will try again, she asks her father for guidance: “What am I supposed to do now?” He tells her to “pray, and listen for what comes next.”
He does not pray with her, however, and there is no caution about looking for answers in God’s Word as our hearts are prone to deceive us when we look for answers there (see Jeremiah 17:9, and the entire chapter, for beautiful words of encouragement about not trusting in our own strength but being utterly dependent upon God).
Later, when she is preparing for her comeback, Bethany’s father gives her advice about how to choose the right waves so she doesn’t waste her strength: “Listen to your instinct–trust it.” Though this might be common surfer advice, in the context of the previous conversation and the not-quite-right emphasis on looking within rather than to God for help, it comes across as mysticism rather than biblically-grounded counsel.
When Bethany wows everyone with her amazing come-back at the end of the movie, and everyone is proud of her for her tenacity and courage, as well as admiring her great skill in spite of missing an arm, she asks her mom, “What am I supposed to do now?” Mom replies, “You’re supposed to enjoy it, all of it, for the rest of your life.”
Enjoy “it”? What does that mean? Bask in the glory she gets from winning? Be happy with herself that she didn’t quit? This is far from the message of the Bible that “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23) and “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39).
The Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us what our chief end is—our primary purpose in life when we belong to Christ: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” Him, not “it.” If that is not our focus, then we are making an idol out of our own self-fulfillment and not giving God the glory that is due only to Him. We must glorify the Creator, not the things He created.
Itsy Bitsy, Teenie Weenie Yellow Christianized Bikini
Stacy spoke strongly about the immodesty in this movie. I called it gratuitous, and it was. All the talk I’m hearing about surfing culture and Hawaii standards notwithstanding, I was offended by the nakedishness of most of the people, young and old, men and women, in Soul Surfer.
This is not a prudish problem, it’s a problem with that shifting cultural sand again. There are wide-ranging standards within which we can agree to disagree about what constitutes modest dress. I have been the recipient of disapproving looks from women who are “homier than thou” in layers of frumpy clothing, something I think can be argued is sometimes immodest in the way it draws attention to itself and cultivates an attitude of self-righteousness through dress.
But, what we wear does matter. Everything matters to God, and what we wear on the outside comes from what’s in our hearts. I have sometimes made an idol out of my appearance by looking in the mirror too often and being more concerned with what’s on the outside than what’s on the inside. So what about the beach bodies in this movie?
The beach attire was so skimpy, that it barely covered breasts and genitals. The mother and father in the film were often dressed in “clothing” that revealed their tanned and ripped bodies, which was disconcerting in light of their ages (Helen Hunt is almost 48, Dennis Quaid is 57) and their portrayal of Bethany’s parents.
The video clips of the real Hamilton family during the end credits shows a mother who would not look appealing in a swimsuit, but, looks like a very sweet lady; and, if authenticity was indeed a factor, I don’t know why Helen Hunt was chosen to portray her over someone who was more motherly and less sexy.
In the last scenes of the film, when Bethany shares an award with her most difficult competitor, her father’s shorts are so low on his hips while he’s cheering that I was concerned about a wardrobe malfunction. I think the men’s immodesty in the movie needs to be addressed as well as the women’s.
The Hawaiian surfing scene may involve a laid-back attitude toward this attire, but the biblical injunctions about modesty and nakedness are the standard in this case, not that shifting sand again. Isaiah 47:3, Exodus 28:42, Leviticus 18:6-18, Genesis 9:22-23, and Habukkak 2:15 all refer to the shame of nakedness or the sin of uncovering another’s nakedness to look on them.
We see in John 21:7 that being improperly clothed can be considered “naked,” when Peter made sure to cover up before getting into the water to swim to where Jesus was. If we are desensitized to the unclothing of our culture, then we need to conform our thinking to the standard of the Bible, not to the context of the culture.
As God’s “called out ones” (ekklesia, the Greek word for Church), we are to be a distinct people of God, pursuing holiness, not cultural compromise. This is to be done always with an attitude of humility and patience, but we are still to reprove, rebuke, and exhort from the Word of God (II Timothy 4:2)…always remembering what we ourselves deserve and what God has given us in His grace and mercy, lest we make idols out of our own pride in our “godly attire.”
If we are not clothed with the righteousness of Christ, we could be wearing a burkha and still be immodest. That does not excuse falling off the horse on the other side, however. Law without liberty is tyranny, liberty without law is license (“By no means!” –Romans 6:2). But the law of liberty (or truth AND love –II John 1:3…or spirit and truth–John 4:24) are joined perfectly in Christ Jesus, the One we must please and obey.
I know that there are many people who will watch this movie and not even think about the problem of modesty. It’s a problem because we are desensitized like the frog in the boiling water, and maybe this movie has created a good opportunity to talk about that!
It’s a well-known fact that many men have a problem with pornography, something that was addressed very biblically and carefully in the Christian film, Fireproof. Putting larger-than-life bikini-clad teenagers in front of Christian boys and men and then telling them to not lust, but to discern the Christian message in the movie, is ignorant at best.
If men do not have a problem with seeing women who are virtually unclothed, then perhaps we ought to wonder what that indicates about their sexual health and consciences.
When King David noticed Bathsheba bathing on the rooftop, he reacted as any normal, healthy man would–he was aroused. At that point he had a choice: he could keep looking, or he could turn away and refuse to indulge himself in lustful thoughts. He did the former, with terrible results. We need to teach our sons to deal with the cavalcade of immodesty, but we don’t have to intentionally place them in the path of it.
Exercising self-control is an important practice for all Christians. Yet, if we expect our husbands and sons to be functional eunuchs who have an on/off switch when it comes to their God-given sexuality, we may desensitize them in ways that have deeper consequences than we expected.
As a mother of seven sons, I want each of them (and my husband!) to be excited about his own wife’s unclothed body, and studies that show “overexposure to erotic stimuli exhausted the sexual responses of healthy young men” concern me.
This is not about a couple of church ladies who expect us all to be desexualized robots; we are actually concerned that the blithe acceptance of immodesty among Christians will be detrimental to their families in this area, as some shrug at what is a deep and beautiful gift from God to be enjoyed only in the context of marriage.
That He reserved nakedness for the privacy of marital intimacy shows God’s grace to us, in that Adam and Eve were ashamed of their nakedness after they sinned; yet, He properly clothed them and redeemed their ability to enjoy each other as husband and wife.
Some are quick to defend the skimpy attire and surfer subculture as long as they “love Jesus.” But, those whose pagan culture is characterized by nakedness, or close to it, often change when they come to Christ. Peter Hammond, a long-time missionary in South Africa and the Sudan, wrote about his concerns with young American Christians who come to help him on short-term missions trips being a stumbling block to newly-converted-from-paganism Christians in Africa.
Some Christians treat even the ungodly practices of pagan cultures as sacrosanct and like Captain Kirk’s crew they have a “Prime Directive” to leave those cultures alone. But, the regenerate believers in some of the darkest places, when they have new hearts, want to live new lives, inside and out. If they were naked, they put on clothes. If they mutilated their bodies, they stop. Hammond says:
African cultures value politeness and hospitality highly. So unless you probe and ask lots of penetrating questions you will never know that you have offended your hosts. They will continue to smile and be friendly even as the door slams firmly shut to further ministry.
For example, in Africa, it is generally considered a disgrace for a man to have long hair. This is not only cultural, but Biblical: “Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonour to him.” (1 Corinthians 11:14). Yet you will see many long haired and pony tailed men heading out “to evangelise the pagans in Africa” oblivious to what a “stumbling block” they are.
The Good Parts
Though I think it missed the mark, there were some things in Soul Surfer that I appreciated:
- Bethany’s mother shows real concern over her daughter’s (and her husband’s) obsession with surfing and competition. She wants her daughter to find her identity elsewhere (though she never says that it should be in Christ).
- Bethany is very concerned for her friend who was there when the shark attack occurred. Later she is gracious about her friend having an opportunity that she is missing out on because of her accident (a photo shoot, which Stacy discusses in her review). Though the scene itself was problematic, Bethany’s heart toward her friend showed selflessness.
- The family in the movie is very close with one another, and Bethany’s brother and father are protective of her when she comes home from the hospital to an onslaught of media outside their home.
- Homeschooling is mentioned in a positive way.
- People who are suffering disabilities are portrayed as valuable and there is a lot of encouragement about not giving up because you have a physical obstacle.
- Bethany is very kind to a girl who has been nasty to her, and she thanks her for not going easy on her because it has helped her to try harder and do better. Because of Bethany’s kindness, she eventually wins over her “enemy.”
What Could They Have Done Differently?
When the movie ended and the video of the real Bethany was shown in the end credits, I enjoyed watching her much more than the fictitious Bethany, especially when she did give credit to Jesus Christ for her success. I still did not like to see her in a bikini in a couple of shots, but I noticed that in many of the videos and photos of her, she was wearing a t-shirt or top that covered her up, even when she was surfing.
If a movie has to be made about this story (and I think there’s a discussion for another time about whether it needed to be done in a feature-length movie, rather than a documentary), the constant exposure to the bodies of the actors was not necessary to the telling of the tale. They could still have had a good and authentic story without exposing so much flesh.
Stacy and I are sympathetic to some reactions to criticisms of the movie, and we want to reiterate that we are only addressing the film and not Bethany herself. I believe that one of the reasons this is a problem at all is because we are lazy. We want easy answers to how to dress, so we often either dress in a frumpy way that covers our bodies or in a sleazy way that looks like everyone else.
It’s hard to find lovely things to wear that aren’t immodest. I was looking for a dress for my teenaged daughter to wear on Easter, and every pretty dress for young girls is about a foot too short. It takes a lot of work to help our daughters dress beautifully and appropriately. The answer isn’t to be as plain as possible. God’s called-out ones ought to be distinct in their loveliness…inside and out.
We are not gnostics who either act as libertines or treat our bodies as indifferent. We need to keep taking dominion over this area and be the trendsetters and problem-solvers who demonstrate what beauty truly is.
We also need to stand firm against spiritual syncretism. God will tolerate no other gods before Him, and His people ought to be very jealous for His rightful place in our lives and our culture. Syncretism with self-esteem, generic religious messages, and feel-good stories will lead people astray. They need the message of the Gospel loud and clear in a story that is touted as a Christian tale, else we are creating idols for others to worship.
Idols in Our Hearts
A couple of weeks ago I took my daughter to a women’s conference that discussed idols we all create in our hearts. Ever since then, we have been mulling over the welcome reminders that we are prone to daily place all sorts of thoughts and objects in the place of honor that belongs to God alone.
Because of what God’s Son, Jesus Christ, did for us–condescending to become a baby who grew into a man, living a perfect and holy life, and suffering and dying for our sins, then giving us His righteousness so we can live holy, set-apart lives to His glory–because of all that, we ought to be grateful women who are anxious to please our merciful God in every area of our lives. Yet, we still cling to our pet sins and justify our compromises, setting up sad idols in the place that rightfully belongs to our just, holy, and loving Father in Heaven.
We all do this. I was humbled as the speaker told stories about herself and women she’s counseled, who indulged in prideful, angry, and petty personal hurts in their idolatry; but, I was even more convicted as she spoke of how we even make idols out of good things when we take the focus off the Giver of those good gifts. We need to focus on His glory rather than our own desires, even if we have “good” motives for those desires.
It may be that we want a good marriage, godly children, peace and unity in our churches, or health. But, when our happiness comes from saying, “If I only had this…”, no matter how noble that goal, we are idolators. I have been thinking a lot about this lately, and it has given me much of which to repent.
There is a lot of confusion in our culture over things of much deeper import than just how we dress. Most people think they can get to Heaven by brownie points and they judge themselves by that sliding scale…”I’m not that bad!”
That’s not the standard God uses, and we must give them a warning and give them the hope that is found in Christ alone, and what He did for us in His life and His death and His resurrection. “Repent of all that displeases God and turn to Him for salvation” is what we should model and speak. Being a Soul Winner is much better than being a Soul Surfer. To God alone be the glory!
You can visit Carmon Friedrich at Buried Treasure Books as soon as she has it back up and running, which, hopefully, will be very soon!