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Soul Surfer and the Prude

How a Christian movie can undermine its own intentions and create more problems than it seeks to solve

PrudePrude - a person who affects or shows an excessively modest, prim, or proper attitude, esp. regarding sex. (1)

Let me give you a real world example of this word in use: “Oh Dad, don’t be such a prude.  All the girls dress this way!”

Prude is a very interesting word.  Its roots are French, from a word meaning “a worthy or respectable woman”.  “Prudence” (2) was a popular name among the English Puritans.  But the meanings of words evolve and change with time.  This word has changed so much that today being a prude is akin to being stuffy, narrow-minded, “straight-laced” and Puritanical. (Yet another word with a rather interesting history that belies its current usage in our culture.)

I raise the issue because of my prudish attitude toward a movie I saw last night.  Soul Surfer is a story based upon the true-life experiences of a Christian girl by the name of Bethany Hamilton.  At the age of thirteen she tragically lost her left arm in a shark attack.  The movie is a depiction of her struggle to understand why God would allow such a thing to happen to her, as well as her heroic return to her surf board and a professional surfing career.  The movie is one of a number of Christian-themed movies in recent years such as Fireproof and The Blind Side, another “true-story” Hollywood film.

My prudishness has flourished with age.  At the over-ripe old age of 55, my prudage is operating on all eight cylinders.  Maybe nine.  I thought it peaked when I had a teen-aged daughter in the house, but not so.  It is even worse now.

I live in a large university town where Modesty and Springtime never get acquainted.  The two seldom meet.  I understand some of the reason for their apparently irreconcilable differences.

For many decades young women in their very natural attempts to attract the attention of their male counterparts, have found it difficult if not impossible to purchase attractive springtime attire that doesn’t reveal more than it covers.  And by “cover” I mean covering loose enough to prevent someone from reading “In God We Trust” on a dime through the hip pocket.  Or any other pocket, for that matter.

As a result of this perpetual lack of sufficient springtime coverage, the principle young women have slowly but surely adopted is this: Revealing is Attractive.  It seems to have acquired the status of absolute truth.  The second principle has followed close behind: More Revealing is More Attractive.  The unavoidable principle number three (because Principles #1 and #2 are now in the Bill of Rights) is: Modest is Prudish.  It is common knowledge that there hardly exists a worse affliction upon fallen humanity than being a prude.  Leprosy may be slightly worse.  In its advanced stages.

I’ve never lived in Hawaii where Bethany Hamilton grew up.  I’ve never even visited.  The main reason I never have and never will make the trip to the fiftieth state is that large body of water between here and there.  I don’t even like medium-sized bodies of water.  When I was a kid, I nearly drowned during a vacation with Johnny Traylor at Myrtle Beach.  Johnny swam like Neptune.  I swam like the Titanic.  That harrowing experience taught me more than mere respect for the ocean.  It taught me fear.  I still have regularly reoccurring dreams of floods and drowning.

So you can understand why I just don’t hang out at the beach very much.  Or at the lake.  Or at the pool.  In fact, I never do.  And although I miss out on refreshing dips in the cement pond in the heat of the summer, my near death experience as a child in South Carolina served at least one good purpose: it has kept me away from large bodies of water with large numbers of scantilly clad women.

Many would say, “Oh Keith, you’re such a prude.”  Yeah, I know that.  But it’s more than that.  Even with one and a half feet in the grave, now that I’ve reached my twilight years and can see Dr. Alzheimer quickly approaching on the horizon, . . . even at the ancient age of 55, having personally witnessed the first day of creation, . . . even at this stage in the game, an attractive woman with more than a little skin exposed still poses a problem for me.  And I am not alone.

So what did I expect to see when I went to a “Christian” movie about a surfer girl from Hawaii?  What was I thinking?  Clearly, I wasn’t.  I will admit this much: Soul Surfer wasn’t nearly as provocative as it could have been.   I genuinely appreciated the obvious attempt to avoid the needless parading of bikini-clad women across the screen.  There surely could have been more girls with less coverage.  But even so, there were plenty.  After all, it was about surfing.  And it wasn’t about surfing in Victorian England or Puritan Massachusetts.

However, the film was advertised and promoted as a Christian-based or “inspirational” movie, whatever that means.  So my question is this: Is there a biblical standard for modesty which Christians should adhere to if they want to be pleasing to their Lord, or am I just a poster child for prudeness because I never visit Myrtle Beach?  Am I a prude or is every female on the planet over the age of 10 a total stranger to modesty (except for Muslim women whose husbands really know how to avoid this problem)?  Or, more to the point, is it possible to live as a Christian woman in our culture today with modesty and still be attractive?

Soul Surfer provoked my thinking about all of this.  Without being too graphic (because I am hopelessly prudish, you know), this Christian-influenced movie featured a lot of young women from every possible angle with very little clothing.  But to make matters worse, in one scene two young ladies are shopping for what used to be called “swimwear”.  When they find a one-piece suit hanging on the rack, one girl says it is cute, to which the other replies, “Yeah, if you’re 100!”  Once again, I realize this movie is about surfer girls in Hawaii.  No one ever walks around Hawaii with “winter wear” on.  Sweaters are rather scarce.  So, yes, I understand people living on islands in sub-tropical climates don’t wear a lot of wool.  Ever.  But I did not appreciate the one vestige of conscientiousness regarding modesty in this film being ridiculed.

But the fact that beachcombers don't wear a lot of clothing does not make the question illegitimate: Is there a biblical standard for modesty which all Christians should adhere to in order to be obedient to their Lord?  Regardless of where they live?  The answer is yes.

When the apostle Paul instructs the church at Corinth regarding the various giftings amongst the members of the church, he likens each person to a different part of the human body and he says:

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. (1 Corinthians 12:21-24a ESV)

For the sake of this blog, suffice it to say Paul believed we all possess unpresentable parts which are to be treated with greater modesty.  King David knew something about that.  It was the display, whether intentional or not, of Bathsheba’s unpresentable parts that led the “man after God’s own heart” to commit adultery and eventually murder.  That’s one of the big reasons why they are called unpresentable parts.  Men often think and do very bad things in such situations.

Again, Paul gives instruction to Timothy in how believers should conduct themselves in corporate worship:

8 I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; 9 likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. (1 Timothy 2:8-10 ESV)

Respectable apparel?  Proper?  It appears Paul is saying that how Christian women (i.e. women who profess godliness) dress has an effect upon others and their perception of her.  Being respectable and honorable is something to be desired, and one’s attire directly affects one’s respectability.  The opposite of respectable attire would be to dress in such a way as to provoke lust and disrespect.  Lustiness from your husband in the bedroom?  Well, yeah!  In a worship service from a brother in the Lord across the isle.  To quote Paul once again, “May it never be!”.

This brings me back to Soul Surfer.  Should a Christian movie provoke lustful thoughts in those who watch it?  The answer is obvious.  Did Soul Surfer provoke this kind of response in some people?  It is quite safe to say it did.  In an attempt to make a movie that would present Christians and Christianity in a non-prudish, positive light, the subject matter itself sabotaged many good intentions.  It presented a problem for prudes like me.

However, apart from the rampant immodesty, I otherwise actually liked the movie for the most part even though I cannot recommend it.  In spite of a very weak, nominally Christian message which amounted to little more than moralism (3), the acting was quite good amongst the primary actors.  Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt who played Bethany’s parents are always superb.  AnnaSophia Robb (Bethany) was excellent.  It was a very moving story which brought me to tears more than once.

The struggles the Hamilton family faced are real.  Believers are not exempt from the dangers and pitfalls of this world.  Sharks attack Christians and non-Christians alike without discrimination.  But thankfully, as we’re supposed to see in this movie (albeit with great difficulty), the Christian has a Savior in the Lord Jesus.  Like a Shepherd, He ultimately leads us safely home through all our troubles.

Bethany Hamilton is an outstanding example of perseverance in the face of serious adversity.  May we all be encouraged by her to press on through all the heartbreaking, faith-building trials God sends our way.  And I pray the Lord might grant His people everywhere the discernment we need to live godly lives for Him, not only in the things we do for Him, but also in the way we conduct ourselves in such mundane matters as how we dress.

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1. "prude." Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. 19 Jul. 2011. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/prude>.

2. "prudence." Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. 21 Jul. 2011. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/prudence>.

3. Much of American Evangelicalism has been reduced to teaching Moralism instead of the Gospel.  Today, Christians are presented as good people who generally don’t do bad things and Jesus somehow makes their lives nice.  This is not the biblical Christian message.  Soul Surfer was a gospel-less movie.  The name of Jesus Christ was barely mentioned at all.  According to Wikipedia [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soul_Surfer_(film)], the producers wanted to remove “Holy Bible” from the cover of the Bible Bethany’s father was reading as he sat in the hospital with her.  This is no surprise considering the secular movie companies that created this film wanted to avoid offending anyone in order to appeal to as large an audience as possible.  But what is truly troubling is when the Church takes the same stance as the unbelieving film makers by avoiding the Gospel message in order to avoid offending unbelievers.  When the Church becomes gospel-less, what reason do we have to exist at all?

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