SDG Reviews ‘The Case for Christ’

The big-screen version of Lee Strobel’s best-selling conversion story makes the case for Jesus’ resurrection — and perhaps the future of faith-based films.

(photo: Pure Flix)

The atheists and nonbelievers in The Case for Christ don’t have horns and tails, or even mustaches for twirling. They aren’t out to crush believers into dust or banish their beliefs from respectable society.

The believers aren’t persecuted, marginalized victims, but capable, respected professionals in fields ranging from medical science and health care to archaeology, New Testament studies, philosophy, journalism and more. The conflict turns on faith and unbelief, but believers and unbelievers aren’t cast as natural enemies.

In other words, The Case for Christ is far from the paranoid, agonistic world of the two God’s Not Dead films, for which Pure Flix Entertainment is best known. Producers Elizabeth Hatcher-Travis and Pure Flix CEO Michael Scott collaborated on all three films — and Lee Strobel, the protagonist of The Case for Christ, cameoed as himself in God’s Not Dead 2. Yet The Case for Christ is the furthest thing from a God’s Not Dead 3.

The differences start with the real-life story behind The Case for Christ, Strobel’s conversion story from atheism to Christianity. Where the God’s Not Dead films offer lurid distillations of fundamentalist urban legends, The Case for Christ is about real people — at least, about as much as an average fact-based Hollywood drama.

Strobel was a wunderkind investigative journalist and legal editor for the Chicago Tribune who started working in a newsroom at age 15 and published his first book while still in his 20s (based on his award-winning reporting on the 1980 Indiana v. Ford trial). Around the same time, he was shocked when agnostic wife Leslie, then pregnant with their second child, converted to Christianity following a crisis involving their first child, Alison. Spurred by her conversion, Lee set out to investigate the evidence for Christianity.

Strobel’s investigation persuaded him of the credibility of the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. In 1981 he became a Christian, and he eventually left journalism to become a pastor and a writer of Christian books. His 1998 best-seller, The Case for Christ, offers a first-person account of his journey, including interviews with Christian scholars; it also touches on other events in his life at the time, including a story he wrote about a convicted cop-shooter whose story turned out to be quite different than it seemed.

Screenwriter Brian Bird (a longtime partner of Michael Landon Jr. who wrote several episodes of Touched by an Angel) is an old friend of Strobel. He has a good ear for dialogue; his characters banter, bicker and quarrel like real human beings.

When Leslie (Erika Christensen of NBC’s Parenthood) tentatively tells Lee (Mike Vogel of The Help and Cloverfield) what she has experienced, each of them winds up saying things that don’t necessarily come out quite right. Both leads are likable and engaging; Christensen is particularly good in a tricky role, a character whose conversion comes early in the story, who then has to explain and defend what she has experienced and struggle with uncertainty in the aftermath.

The supporting cast is remarkable. Cameos include Faye Dunaway as an agnostic professor of psychology and Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) as Lee’s estranged father. L. Scott Caldwell (Lost) has a key role as a nurse named Alfie who becomes Leslie’s mentor in faith.

Adding a psychological dimension to Lee’s intellectual journey, the screenplay breaks up Lee’s talky, apologetics-heavy interviews with evangelical luminaries like Gary Habermas (Kevin Sizemore) and William Lane Craig (Rus Blackwell) with a subplot inspired by the cop-shooting case. In this telling, Lee’s coverage is instrumental in putting the innocent man (Renell Gibbs of Barbershop: The Next Cut) behind bars, heightening the self-doubt he feels when he realizes that his biases led him to misconstrue the evidence.

A third strand turns on Lee’s bitter relationship with his father. Dunaway’s character refers to the “father wound,” an unofficial term used by mental-health professionals to describe the emotional fallout of abusive, antagonistic, distant or absent fathers. Echoing Catholic psychologist Paul C. Vitz, author of Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, she notes that many atheist luminaries, such as Nietzsche, Sartre and Freud, suffered from such a “father wound.”

This is a controversial theory that atheists persuasively argue has been advanced anecdotally rather than rigorously. Throwing this notion into a drama about evidence for the Resurrection strikes me as a misstep of the kitchen-sink variety, one that weakens rather than strengthens the whole, at least for non-choir viewers.

Perhaps Strobel’s life fits the theory; at any rate, the way the film links the alleviation of Lee’s father wound and his acceptance of God works dramatically. Still, it would have been better if Dunaway’s agnostic character had mentioned the theory skeptically rather than asserting it as fact. This is a case of a character too clearly saying what the writer wants to say rather than what she would really say.

That’s not the only issue. Lee’s discomfort with Leslie’s conversion is believable to a point, but it’s not clear why he’s so hostile — far more than his affable journalism/atheism mentor Ray (Brett Brice), who suggests that Leslie’s faith “may not be such a terrible thing” if it brings her comfort and asks if Lee can’t simply live with it.

Later Ray reminds Lee how much he loves Leslie and advises him to make sure she knows it. Shortly after that, Lee and Leslie enjoy a date night that ends with Leslie telling Lee she loves him more than ever. His response is effectively an ultimatum: He doesn’t like “this version of us” (why?) and can’t see sticking around forever under these conditions. (The real Strobel has said that Leslie’s conversion rocked their marriage, but also that he was positively impressed with the change in her — something that doesn’t come across in the film.)

These aren’t trivial issues, but compared to the phony, didactic marriages in faith-based films like Fireproof or The Song, The Case for Christ always feels at least like a real movie marriage, and sometimes like an actual real marriage. Especially good are both parents’ interactions with little Alison, played by adorable Haley Rosenwasser, who is always unforced and authentic.

The film builds its case for the Resurrection of Jesus in Strobel’s interviews reasonably well; if it oversimplifies, so does any popular movie dealing with complex topics.

An interview with an archaeologist-turned-Catholic priest named Jose Maria Marquez (a composite character played by Miguel Perez) blurs the distinction between the historical value of texts and the reliability of their transmission, but neither question is simply unaddressed. (Los Angeles’ photogenic St. Vincent de Paul Church, previously seen in End of Days and Constantine, stands in for Father Marquez’s parish.)

From Habermas (first glimpsed debating a fictional British atheist), Strobel learns the historical importance of the early Resurrection creedal formula in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. Craig (in a phone call from Jerusalem) addresses the first witnesses to the empty tomb and the Resurrection being women and the basic consistency of the Resurrection accounts. Physician and research scientist Dr. Alexander Metherell (Tom Nowicki) explains the physiology of the Crucifixion and the medical details of Jesus’ death.

Period details help sell the story and create occasional moments of humor. Lee scrambles for pocket change during an interview via payphone; we also see that he isn’t above planting a bogus “out of order” sign on a courthouse payphone to “reserve” it for his own use after a verdict. The soundtrack includes one obvious, apt period pick: Kansas’ Carry On, Wayward Son, with its heavy lyrical foreshadowing of songwriter Kerry Livgren’s eventual conversion to Christianity.

Diverse casting is another strength. Leslie’s mentor, Alfie, the third most important character, is a black woman; Lee’s editor (Frankie Faison) is black, as is a wrongly convicted character who takes the fall for a dishonest white cop (Judd Lormand). Then there’s Father Marquez: He is not only a Latino, but a Catholic priest in a Pure Flix movie. (Consider that in God’s Not Dead — which was produced and directed by Protestants, but scripted by two Catholics — a reference to the Belgian priest-physicist Msgr. Georges Lemaître, father of the Big Bang theory, was edited to identify him only as a “theist,” not a priest or even a Catholic!)

The Case for Christ gives me hope for the future of faith-based filmmaking. It’s a movie I can imagine watching with a mixed group of Christians and faith-friendly nonbelievers and not cringing and wincing at every scene, which is a huge leap beyond God’s Not Dead. Afterward there would still be plenty of criticism and debate, but this movie has something to contribute to the discussion, rather than only detracting from it.

Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.

Follow him on Twitter.

Caveat Spectator: Minor thematic elements, including medical description of crucifixion; a mildly rude expression. Fine for older kids.