What could be better than an inspirational sports movie? Not much . . . except an inspirational sports movie based on actual events! I love, yes love, these films filled with training montages, dirt-stained faces, and moving musical scores. I am unabashed and unashamed when it comes to cheering out loud. Even in the theater. To this day if I happen to pass it by while channel surfing, I still can’t help but stop, raise my hand, and pump my arm along with the crowd in the stands: “Ru-dy! Ru-dy! Ru-dy!”
So you can imagine how stoked (that’s right—stoked) I was to see the new film Soul Surfer. Starring AnnaSophia Robb, Helen Hunt, and Dennis Quaid, Soul Surfer is based on the life of surf pro Bethany Hamilton. In 2003, at the age of 13, Bethany was attacked by a shark in the waters off Kauai, Hawaii, losing her left arm in the near-fatal incident.
Already a competitive surfer at the time of the attack, Bethany not only struggled to relearn how to do everyday tasks, but she also underwent the emotional and physical hardships of trying to get back on her board in order to realize her dream of becoming a professional surfer.
As amped (that’s right—amped) as I was going into the theater, I have to admit I settled into my chair with my schmaltz-o-meter turned on and ready. I know Bethany is a Christian, and that she attributes her recovery and the strength it took to her relationship with Jesus. This had me wondering if I was about to see a movie about a surfing Christian or a Christian movie about a surfer. I believe there is a difference and, in this humble writer’s opinion, the former would be 100 times preferable to the latter . . . and probably 100 times better as well.
Approximately 120 minutes after taking my seat, I left the theater both stoked and amped. Soul Surfer delivered. Killer shore break? Check. Powerful story about overcoming the odds? Check. Testimony of the sustaining strength that faith in Christ provides, revealed through moving moments and minimal schmaltz? Check and check.
A testimony is, after all, a personal account. An experience-based story. Not a sermon. Soul Surfer did what movies are made to do: tell a story. Bethany’s story is one that leaves the viewer thoughtful, even if not inspired. How could a girl so young have such composure in the midst of such a traumatic experience? How could she have such tenacity and discipline to recover and make a comeback so quickly? (She was back on her board less than a month after the attack.) And, my biggest question, how did she have such faith?
I admit, there were a few moments where I thought, “This seems too easy. She couldn’t have had this much faith, could she? Was it really that easy for her to trust in the Lord?” This is where my schmaltz-o-meter needle started to sway ever so slightly. But then I stopped myself and said, “Annie, maybe this isn’t the part where the movie is getting a little too ‘Christiany’ for your liking. Maybe she really did trust the Lord just that much.” As I continued to watch, I realized that yes, she did.
It’s the do-or-die, I-may-be-down-but-I’m-not-out moment in all inspirational sports movies that I love most. In this case, that moment took place when Bethany decided to start training in order to compete once again. Her dad says, “This isn’t going to be easy.” She replies, “I don’t need easy. I just need possible.” (This earned the first fist-pump of the movie.) That is a schmaltz-free, faith-filled statement if I’ve ever heard one, because what she saw as possible, most would have seen as completely impossible. I know I would have.
And THIS is what I love about sports movies. It’s not about the winning. It’s about the overcoming. Sure, maybe the player or team gets the touchdown or the title, the big win or the ring. But that’s not the victory. Not the one that counts, anyway. The real victory is achieved in reaching the goal. And these heroes usually do it by refusing to accept that the impossible is truly impossible. They choose to believe it’s possible. Not easy. Not by a long shot. But possible.
Believing the impossible is possible is faith, no matter your religious persuasion. Bethany Hamilton’s story of perseverance and passion regardless of circumstances is faith at its noblest, because she didn’t merely look inward. She looked up and out, and I think this takes the greatest faith of all.
Now, even though I enjoy inspiring movies like Soul Surfer so much, I think sports-to-life metaphors usually fall short. Overcoming the trials life presents to us is a far bigger challenge than scoring a winning Super Bowl touchdown with ten seconds left in the fourth quarter. And achieving goals or seeing dreams come to pass is far greater than getting a bottom-of-the-ninth, bases-loaded, two-strikes-on-the-board homerun. (Unless, of course, that is your dream.)
But even the Apostle Paul compared living by faith to being in the midst of a great race, and he urged us to train hard and run to win. Does that mean we fill our lives with a flurry of Christian activity in the name of an intense training regimen? No. Does that mean we need to fast four times a week in the name of religiously beating our bodies? I don’t think so. Does it mean we need to commit Bible verses to memory while doing military-style push-ups? Definitely not, although I would be very impressed with anyone who did this.
I think it means . . . we just don’t give up. And when we really, really want to give up, we cry out for help, asking God to help us remember and believe that He makes the impossible possible. It might not be easy, but it will be possible.
Whether it’s a sports superstar, or just your average joe with no athletic prowess or finesse whatsoever, show me a person with such faith, and I’ll fist-pump and cheer him on any day of the week, whether his name is “Rudy” or not.
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