The Case for Christ
Directed by Jon Gunn; screenplay by Brian Bird
Starring: Mike Vogel, Erika Christensen, Frankie Faison, Faye Dunaway, Robert Forster
USA, 112 minutes
Some of the greatest witnesses to the Christian faith throughout history are those who were won over from opposition or atheism. From St Paul to C.S. Lewis and Francis S. Collins, converts to Christianity regularly upset settled opinions about faith, reason and science. A prominent contemporary example is the American journalist turned pastor, Lee Strobel, widely known in Evangelical circles for his many books, and the subject of a new film from Christian movie house Pure Flix.
The Case for Christ, released last weekend in the United States and Canada, takes its name from the book Strobel wrote about the evidence that led to his conversion. As the film opens, Lee (Mike Vogel) is receiving an award for his work as an investigative journalist at the Chicago Tribune. It’s 1980, with manual typewriters in the newsroom and Lee sporting longish hair. His first book has been published and he hawks it to largely indifferent colleagues. His editor lands him with a cop-shooting to investigate in which a young black man with a record is the natural suspect. He’d rather not.
On the home front his wife, Leslie (Erika Christensen), is close to giving birth to their second child. They go out to a restaurant with their young daughter Alison (Haley Rosenwasser), who nearly chokes to death on a gumball – and thereby causes a revolution in the lives of her parents, and her own. Leslie becomes a Christian, to the dismay and somewhat excessive anger of her husband, who insists, even to young Alison, that “we are atheists”. Meaning? “We believe in facts, what you can see and touch.”
To prove her wrong and “get his wife back” Lee is driven to begin another investigation: to nail down the (in his view, non-existent) facts about the resurrection of Christ, on which, as one of his mentors points out, the whole Christian edifice stands or falls. The parallel shooting investigation saves the film from becoming too much about apologetics, and highlight common issues like stereotyping, prejudice, reliability of witnesses, and the promptings of conscience and the heart. At the same time a domestic drama is building, carried convincingly by Christensen, and to a lesser extent by Vogel in scenes of drunken rantings against religion.
Secretly, Lee pursues the case against Christ, consulting experts near and far on Scripture, church history, archaeology, psychology and medicine, hoping all the while to find a chink in their intellectual armour. These interviews allow the film to achieve its primary purpose of making “the case for Christ” by providing scholarly answers to common objections to the truth of the resurrection.
The experts are mainly Evangelical Christian scholars (Gary Habermas, William Lane Craig) although there is a Catholic priest archaeologist who, after giving an account of surviving early manuscript evidence for the Bible, introduces Lee to a copy of the Shroud of Turin which is displayed in his church. And there’s a riveting cameo appearance of Faye Dunaway as a psychologist of no evident religious allegiance explaining what a number of famous atheists have had in common. This, as she divines, is very pertinent to Lee’s experience.
We know where this story is going. What we don’t know is how much personal and marital conflict it will take to get there, and what will ultimately tip the balance. His bad handling of the shooting case, and the challenge of a Christian colleague to call a halt on facts and take the leap of faith, play their part. Then there’s the faith of others, particularly his wife, who prays and never stops loving the hard case her husband turns out to be. Between them all Lee stumbles on the heart of Christianity.
I am no expert on Christian films but I found this one dramatically engaging and intellectually solid. Although it presents the Christian faith in its modern Evangelical form (with an emphasis on the word, community and contemporary gospel music) the expert testimonies are uncontroversial for a Catholic and probably for members of other mainline denominations. Its popular elements — the marital and family crisis, Lee’s family background, the crime investigation — should help to give it a wide audience and commercial success.
At a time when religion in the West is increasingly treated as the relic of an unscientific age, and atheism is the implicit default position of leading media, The Case for Christ reminds us that intellectuals, scientists and, yes, good journalists can be believers too. That last point would have been clearer if Lee Strobel, Christian, had stayed in secular journalism and continued to burnish his credentials there. By 1987, however, he was working as a teaching pastor and later focused on writing apologetics.
Like many new converts, he was bursting to share his discoveries with others, but, according to the film, his editor at The Tribune told him there was no way his case for Christ was going to be published in that paper. “It’s not what our readers want from us,” he said, or words to that effect.
How could he be so sure?
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.