Walter Mencken 1 p.m., May 1
Comment: Soul Surfer
“You give and take away/You give and take away/Still I choose to say/Blessed be Your name.”
That’s a line from the song that gets sung during the Sunday morning church scene near the beginning of Soul Surfer, and it’s a good choice. In four years of reviewing church services for the Reader, I heard that line from that song more times than I care to recall, performed in more musical styles than I would have thought possible. But whatever the style, the tone was always strangely cheerful. I say “strangely” because the line is paraphrasing Job: “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
When Job said that, God had just wiped out his flocks, his servants, and his children – all to prove a point to Satan. By blessing God in the midst of his affliction, Job demonstrated profound acceptance, yes. Tremendous faith, sure. But it is difficult to imagine that he was cheerful about it. It isn’t long, after all, before Job is cursing the day he was born, and small wonder: suffering is suffering, even for a believer. And in some ways, especially for a Christian believer, a person forever tempted by the question, “How can a God who is Love possibly will this or that misery for someone?”
That’s the story (however awkwardly told) of Soul Surfer: a Christian teenager learning to suffer, to love, and to persevere. Showbiz-wise, it helps, of course, that there is lots of surfing, done by lots of pretty girls in bikinis. And it helps that the suffering is very down to earth: a shark has bitten off teenage Bethany’s arm. And it maybe helps even more that all this is based on a real person’s real experience.
But the real good news for would-be fans of Christian cinema is that there is some genuine moviemaking here. In a fine essay over at Salon entitled “Why are Christian movies so awful?” critic Andrew O’Hehir compares Christian movies of today with gay movies circa 1986, “with a self-ghettoizing mandate to present positive role models for youth and tell and anodyne but uplifting story that sends a message of hope.” Fair enough. But if you compare Soul Surfer with, say, 2008’s Fireproof, I think you can find signs of aesthetic growth.
Yes, there is plenty of heavy-handed message delivery, complete with stupid voiceovers to explain what we’ve just seen onscreen. But there are also some finely observed moments. After the shark attack, Bethany’s best friend tells her, “Please don’t die.” Moments later, we see Bethany’s mother doing some begging of her own, whispering, “Please don’t take her.” Both responses are born of love, but they quietly illustrate different frames of reference. O’Hehir points out that movies are not mirrors, but there are particular dramas that occur only when God is in the picture, and those dramas can be worth exploring, even for the nonbeliever.
What really made me sit up and take notice, however, was the well-paced scene following the shark attack. While Bethany gushes blood and slips into shock, her surfmates have to get her to the reef, then to the shore, then through the woods, then to the car, then to the ambulance, then to the hospital. No melodrama, no swelling score, just trauma and effort and the slow mounting of dread. In that scene, Christians are people, too.
And why, you ask, should there be any would-be fans of Christian cinema? No reason, I suppose. But good art does have a way of illuminating human experience, and it strikes me that this might be a good thing for both Christians and the non-Christians who share their world.