Are Christian Movies Really So Bad? Is Despair Wiser than Hope? A Reflection on "Soul Surfer"

Are Christian Movies Really So Bad? Is Despair Wiser than Hope? A Reflection on "Soul Surfer" May 26, 2011

Andrew O’Hehir at Salon recently penned a review of Soul Surfer entitled, “Why are Christian movies so awful?” He calls Soul Surfer “a trite, sentimental puddle of sub-Hollywood mush, with mediocre photography, weak special effects and an utterly formulaic script.” Christian cinema, he says, is “permanently stuck in 1986, with a self-ghettoizing mandate to present positive role models for youth and tell an anodyne but uplifting story that sends a message of hope.”

My first inclination was simply to ignore O’Hehir. How seriously can you take someone who called Secretariat a piece of “creepy, half-hilarious master-race propaganda almost worthy of Leni Riefenstahl”? To be fair, in a moment of critical magnanimity, he did acknowledge that the film was shot with a lovely golden luminescence, “as if someone just off-screen were burning a cross on the lawn.” And he says that what is “subtext” in Secretariat is straightforward “text” in The Blind Side, so at least he likes to spread evenly his marmalade of political paranoia and contempt for “middle-American values.”

Instead of ignoring O’Hehir, however, I popped over to Rotten Tomatoes and read ten reviews of Soul Surfer from “Top Critics” around the country. Apparently there is a fairly widespread opinion that this biopic of Bethany Hamilton, a teenaged surfer who lost her arm in a shark attack and returned to the sport to reach her dreams, has less spiritual depth and emotional complexity than a cardboard box. Michael O’Sullivan at The Washington Post calls it “Pollyannaish.” Rick Groen of The Globe and Mail says it’s “a true story that plays like bad fiction.” The “barrage of clumsy pro-Christian messages” ruined the film for Peter Hartlaub of the San Francisco Chronicle, and Claudia Puig of USA Today complains it makes “a brave young woman’s life appear like an unremarkable soap opera.”

So, I thought, perhaps the film is just that bad. Yet I suspected something might be amiss. While the “Top Critics” at Rotten Tomatoes gave the film only a 38% “fresh” rating, it got 53% “fresh” from critics in general, an 87% approval rating from audiences, and an A+ Cinemascore rating. Being the intrepid reporter I am, I drove to the theater to take in the film, and found myself agreeing more with the general audience than the top critics. While no one from Soul Surfer should climb those stairs at the Academy Awards next February, the movie was hardly as bad as the top critics alleged.

So I pose a new question: “Why are reviews of Christian films so awful?” I offer three reasons.

First, reputations persist. Let us confess: Christians at least partly brought this upon themselves. There were a lot of bad Christian movies, most of them involving Kirk Cameron. O’Hehir’s nutshell history of Christianity in Hollywood is not entirely wrong. Prior to the 1960s, Hollywood with some regularity cooked up cinematic fare that most American Christians could find acceptable and appealing. Yet the spiritual paths and political predilections of Hollywood elites and middle-American Christians diverged more widely in the decades that followed. As soon as they were convinced that the masters of the movie and music worlds would no longer treat them fairly, Christians did “ghettoize” themselves by creating their own subcultural enclaves in entertainment, academia and the arts.

But just as “Hollywood hates Christians” is no longer an accurate generalization, if it ever was, so “Christian movies are lame” is no longer accurate either. The quality of Christian-themed movies has dramatically improved in the last ten years or so. For all the hysterical accusations O’Hehir leveled against Secretariat, neither he nor other critics could deny the exceptional production values of The Blind Side or Secretariat, nor the first-rate acting of Sandra Bullock as Leigh Anne Tuohy and Diane Lane as Penny Chenery. Say what you will of The Passion of the Christ, but it was nothing if not exquisitely acted and produced. Walden Media and Micheal Flaherty have developed a stream of family movies that have affirmed the classical virtues, upheld high production values, and performed well at the box office. And while Of Gods and Men was produced overseas, it’s an extraordinary exploration of faith and courage that has won over audiences stateside.

Of course, it is a part of the job description for top movie critics to throw steaming mounds of scorn and abuse on middlebrow movies. It shows their superior tastes and pedigree. Yet the “Hollywood hates Christians” meme and the “Christian movies are lame” meme both died for the same reason: because talented Christian producers, directors, writers and actors have been churning out quality product. At worst, wide-release films targeted for Christian audiences are good or bad at about the same rate as wide-release films targeted at other demographics. Even O’Hehir acknowledges that Soul Surfer might as well be Citizen Kane next to the putrid half-baked mess that is Your Highness.

The second reason for the poor general quality of movie reviews of Christian-themed films is this: Hollywood has excised faith from feature films for so long that when a robust and unapologetic faith is included in a film it seems jarring and unseemly. It never bothered me much, even when I was growing up, when films condemned or caricatured traditional Christian beliefs. At least they had the courage to take a position. What bothered me was that I could go to many scores of movies in a single year in which characters confronted the challenges of growing up and raising children, facing disease and death, questioning their purpose and achieving their dreams, without ever — as most normal people do — thinking about God or the ultimate questions that humans have asked for millennia. Or if they were mentioned at all, “God” and “eternity” were discussed with a kind of gaseous vagueness that might appeal to astrologers in West Hollywood but lacked substance for those who actually believe in sin and a savior.

This was of course strategic, as movie producers feared alienating audiences of other faiths or no faith at all — and yet it also brought a sense of absurdity and superficiality to many films. This, and not just the sense that Hollywood regularly flouted their values and trashed their beliefs, was why so many Christians tuned out of mainstream movies. The characters onscreen did not wrestle with life in a way that Christians could find spiritually rich and compelling.

The producers of Soul Surfer and the Hamilton family (with an assist from Carrie Underwood) famously fought over the extent to which Bethany’s faith should be foregrounded in the movie. O’Hehir tells us that her faith is made “plenty explicit.” Now, I am generally of the “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” camp, but I find the word “explicit” interesting here. Is there something vaguely offensive, even obscene, about public displays on faith? O’Hehir responds to faith-talk on the silver screen in roughly the same way that Christians respond to bare flesh. A certain minimal amount is permissible, after which one should hide the children.

Well, my faith is explicit. Faith tends to be. Faith that is profoundly private and personal inevitably also becomes public and interpersonal. When faith is so central to a character’s identity, as it certainly is for Bethany Hamilton, what kind of storytelling would minimize the most central aspect of a character’s identity? What kind of storytelling would bury the key to who she is and why she does the things she does? What we’re seeing, I think, is less a calculating campaign to be more overt about faith in films than a collective waking-up from the ridiculousness of excising faith from the cinema in the first place.

Third, it appears to me that many of the elite movie reviewers operate with an overly cynical opinion of devout Christians and simply do not get their worldview. Movies that center on the abusive mother who sits on the Deacon Board, or the priest who preys on children, or the pastor who preaches care for the poor but only cares for power — these the movie commentariat would find “realistic,” more reflective of “moral complexity” and more courageous in challenging the comforting stories we tell ourselves. The Hamilton family is deeply loving and highly functional, grounded in their faith and inspired by its teachings to take great risks and make great sacrifices on behalf of the needy. I mean, come on! Who’s ever going to believe that?! Where’s the militia manual, the pornography stash, the bomb for the abortion clinic, the off-shore account where they embezzle church funds, or the corpses of half-eaten atheists hidden beneath the floorboards?

To its credit, Soul Surfer does show Bethany frustrated with all the little things she can no longer do when she loses her arm. It shows her grief at the way her body was maimed and how this will cause others (especially guys) to look at her differently. It shows her weeping and questioning her faith and its assurances of purpose and providence. And yet it also shows her finding perspective when she serves tsunami victims in Thailand and observes people who have suffered far more than she has.

This strikes me as eminently believable. These are the kinds of struggles and the kinds of lessons that Christians are trained to experience. But many reviewers found it implausible. Roger Ebert (who has had his own share of misfortune in recent years) expresses this suspicion with the greatest sensitivity:

“There had to be more to it than that. I applaud her faith and spirit…But I feel something is missing. There had to be dark nights of the soul. Times of grief and rage. The temptation of nihilism. The lure of despair. Can a 13-year-old girl lose an arm and keep right on smiling?”

Ultimately, Christian films should go beyond the oppositional stage, in which they see themselves as the antidote to the poison of mainstream films and thus find their moral responsibility in presenting positive role models and messages of hope. More Christian films that portray dark nights of the soul, and struggles with God that endure for years, decades, even a lifetime, would be welcome.

Yet films like Soul Surfer are important as well, and there is nothing unbelievable about them. Perhaps Bethany felt like I did when I broke my neck in a gymnastics accident. Even though I had lost my own athletic dreams, and even though I would suffer chronic pain, it was hard to be angry with God when I knew that I had been spared the far worse fate of quadriplegia. Friends warned me that someday I would be angry with God — and yet, in fifteen years, it hasn’t happened. In many ways, the time of the injury, the recovery, and the return to a healthy life were periods of extraordinary happiness and gratitude for me. Bethany had lost an arm, but her life was miraculously spared. She had a loving family and a loving church and a deep trust in God — and sometimes those things really do make all the difference.

Bethany could not choose whether or not she would suffer. Her only choice was how she would respond to the suffering she was given. To a lesser extent, I faced these choices too. Would I see my broken neck as a mere accident, without purpose or possibility of redemption? Or would I welcome my suffering into my vocation, my physical brokenness as an essential part of the story that God wants to tell through me – believing that the God who authors my story never wastes a page? Bethany found purpose in the loss of her arm. It enabled her to tell a story of faith and hope, and enabled her to reach a far bigger world than she could ever reach through Rip Curl magazine. It’s not surprising to me that she should wrestle with her own brokenness, and then emerge with her hope and joy intact.

There is a subtle but insidious prejudice in the belief that stories of despair and sorrow are profounder or truer than stories of hope and joy. This is what the reviewers do not get about the faith of Bethany Hamilton. In the Christian story, resurrection only follows after crucifixion. The empty tomb is only found beyond the cross. This is the illogical logic of the Christian story, the paradoxical pattern in which Christian children are trained. The arc of history finally bends toward the good. So hope really is truer than despair. Joy really is wiser than sorrow.

This is the faith of many millions of Americans. They will find Bethany’s story more convincing — and ultimately more compelling — than the secular movie-reviewing elite. Soul Surfer has its faults. Parts of it aretoo simplistic. But the central story it tells, of a young woman who comes through extraordinary adversity on the strength of her faith, who must die to her vision of herself before she can find the new life intended for her, is neither implausible nor superficial. For many Americans, it is the deep and hidden logic of the world.

Note: this was originally written for Six Seeds.

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