Director: Jon Gunn
Writer: Brian Bird
Starring: Mike Vogel, Erika Christensen, Frankie Faison, Faye Dunaway, Robert Forster
Genre: Christian Drama
I remember what an eye-opener it was for me to pick up Lee Strobel’s seminal work The Case for Christ back when I was rediscovering my faith in college. I suppose now that it isn’t too surprising for one to take a stab at dramatizing Strobel’s arrival to the faith. While it is no secret of mine that I generally have nothing but scorn for the “Christian film” industry (even the term “Christian film” makes my skin crawl), one can always hope for the best.
Violence: Some grotesque imagery is depicted when discussing the details of the crucifixion. In multiple instances, Lee Strobel goes into a violent fit due to his frustration with his wife’s faith.
Language/crude humor: Some mild profanity substitutes are used.
Sexual content: Only romantic kissing is shown between Lee and his wife.
Drug/alcohol use: Lee Strobel gets himself into a drunken stupor multiple times.
Spiritual content: Much discussion about the nature and intent of God is given, some might strike viewers as being theologically unsound.
Other negative themes: Some atheistic polemics are used by the unbelievers at times.
Positive Content: The whole film is a tale of one man’s journey from fierce atheism to the Christian faith. Lee’s wife shows great patience and long-suffering with her husband’s struggle with her newfound faith, often turning to prayer and scripture for guidance and strength in how to confront such a trying marital situation. The unbelieving characters are never depicted as heartless comically evil villains as they often are in these types of “faith-based” films.
Let’s open this up with a word of full disclosure: The vast majority of what counts as “Christian filmmaking” is artistically, thematically, and oftentimes even spiritually reprehensible. It’s going to take a great deal of restraint from me to not let this review devolve into a rant over my frustrations with the self-styled “faith-based media” industry, but I’ll begin with a token of those frustrations.
One of the most irksome facets to me regarding these types of films is not so much the films themselves, but the culture that surrounds and promotes them. “Christian movies” are oftentimes marked by oversimplified scenarios, tribalistic character tropes and identity markers, weak and undeserved closure, shallow thematic contrivances, willful oversight of uncomfortable dimensions in their own narratives, and Sunday school-level theology. Also a general lack of regard for any objective standards of excellence in craftsmanship or storytelling coupled with the vacuous and self-righteous conviction that all of their artistic and technical failures are compensated for by having a “good message.” In short, most Christian films are a picture-perfect reflection of the numerous shortcomings of modern American Christian culture.
This provides a solid and largely indisputable explanation for why these films, and the ideas conveyed within them, generally only succeed with the demographics that already agree with them. “Christian films” are generally only useful for preaching to the choir. Not even the entire choir–just the lowest common denominator of the choir. Thus, when it comes to actually strengthening the body of Christ for more effective discipleship, or even just performing the rudimentary task of telling a good story, the works in this category are pretty much useless.
Having said that, let’s take a look at the track record for Pure Flix Entertainment, the distributor for The Case For Christ. I see from research that they were responsible for those two deplorable God’s Not Dead movies…
Okay, okay, so this one’s a significant improvement over the company’s predecessors, in the same way that a decent lunch at a Ruby Tuesday is a significant improvement over Lyme disease. Where God’s Not Dead was little more than weak triumphalistic schlock with equally weak apologetics arguments, The Case for Christ takes a correct turn in being first and foremost a film about real characters with real struggles and complexities. But that’s not to say that the studio in particular, and the industry as a whole, doesn’t still have a ways to go.
Lee Strobel (Mike Vogel) has what one would consider an idyllic all-American life. Highly accomplished in his career as an investigative journalist, he is more than happy to return home every day to his loving wife (Erika Christensen) and daughter (Haley Rosenwasser) with an unborn son in waiting. He began his career at the age of fifteen as a newsroom writer and published his first book (Reckless Homicide?) while in his 20s. One fateful night, his life and view on life itself is challenged greatly when a crisis involving his daughter nearly choking to death brings something of a signal of transcendence to his wife Leslie.
While Lee is grateful to the nurse who saved his daughter’s life, he sees the whole event as nothing more than lucky coincidence. The nurse suggests otherwise, indicating that she felt that the Lord led her to that restaurant for some unforeseen reason. While Lee simply dismisses such an ethereal suggestion, Leslie is affected differently. Leslie makes an effort to befriend the savior nurse, Alfie (L. Scott Caldwell), who becomes her spiritual mentor on the road to the Christian faith. Once Lee catches wind of his wife’s conversion, he’s compelled to use his investigative skills to refute her faith, thinking that while it does make her happy, he can’t bear the idea of carrying out the rest of their marriage in the shadow of what he believes to be mere superstition.
Lee is quite expressive of his frustrations to his friends and colleagues, who consist of both believers and non-believers. They encourage him–almost as a dare–to set out and refute the Christian faith if it is so important to him to live outside of it. Of course, the believers let him know that the simplest way to do that is to disprove the historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus, the event that birthed the entire Christian faith.
When Lee’s Christian colleague puts forth this challenge, Lee jabbingly asks, “Are you sure you want to hand me that gun?” His colleague responds, “I don’t think you’ll be able to pull the trigger.” This token of dialogue was both a great testimony of the confidence with which the believers carry themselves and of the skills of screenwriter Brian Bird, who has a background writing several episodes of Touched by an Angel. It helps that Bird is also an old friend of Strobel’s. His sense of natural dialogue is put to good use here. All the characters speak and act like actual human beings.
What’s especially praiseworthy is that unlike Pure Flix’s previous outings, the unbelieving characters are not presented as soulless irredeemable ogres that the audience is encouraged to boo and sneer at. Lee’s mentor Ray (Brett Rice) confidently recalls his own victory in snuffing out his daughter’s faith in an early scene, but is never reduced to being a villain. At one point, Ray asks Lee if he would be willing to simply accept his wife’s Christianity without agreeing with it since it brings her so much happiness. Ray even encourages Lee to let his wife know that he loves her and to not let his frustration in her beliefs ruin their marriage.
Sadly, it is on this turn that the film’s seams begin to crack. According to Strobel’s actual account, while he disproved of his wife’s faith during that tumultuous period in his life, he loved the massive improvements in Leslie’s character as a result of her faith. This is absent from the film, in which it is rather unclear why Lee has nothing but contempt for his wife’s new life, even though she says that since coming to the faith “I love you more now than ever before.”
There are other moments in Strobel’s journey that left me in a state of disillusionment. His quest to disprove the Resurrection brings him across a number of luminaries in the field of Christian apologetics, such as Gary Habermas (Kevin Sizemore) when tackling the evidence of the Resurrection itself, and William Lane Craig (Rus Blackwell) when discussing the fundamental consistency of the gospel accounts. The material here is not fully or rigorously expounded upon, but such is the case for any drama film that engages with complicated material without becoming a documentary. After hearing about the testimony of 500 witnesses to the resurrected Christ, Strobel consults agnostic psychologist Dr. Roberta Waters (Faye Dunaway) on the notion that they were all under an hallucination.
After explaining the inherently idiosyncratic nature of hallucinations, Dr. Waters remarks that the idea of 500 people hallucinating about the same thing at the same time and in the same place “would be an even bigger miracle than the Resurrection.” It’s a biting comment and one of the most noteworthy quotes in the film, but it’s somewhat strange to hear it coming from the mouth of a character the film presents as a skeptic.
What’s worse is when Dunaway’s character suggests to Strobel that the reason why he’s so at odds with Christian theism is because of what is unofficially known among certain circles as a “father wound”, a term that elucidates to the common trait of many atheist luminaries such as Nietzsche, Hume, Sartre, and Freud having less-than-ideal relationships with their fathers. This is a rather controversial idea that might make it significantly more difficult for a non-believing viewer to engage with the narrative, and it strikes me as rather strange for Dunaway’s ostensibly agnostic character to submit it as a fact rather than suggesting it with skeptical reservation.
This note does tie into Strobel’s character arc in dramatically sound fashion, though. A secondary strand in his tale is his overwrought relationship with his father (Robert Forster), one that has a rather bittersweet payoff later in the film. A larger ancillary plotline is one in which Lee’s journalism is instrumental in incarcerating a man charged with a cop-killing. The payoff to this subplot is essential to Lee’s coming to terms with how his own biases can cloud his assessment of the evidence.
It is quite fitting that so many facets of Strobel’s life in this tale are oriented around his coming to terms with his need for redemption and reconciliation–the two things that are at the heart of the Gospel. What’s more praiseworthy is that how much of a step in the right direction The Case for Christ is in the short oeuvre of Pure Flix Entertainment. While the two God’s Not Dead films were little more than disposable Chick tracts doing little in the way of actually reaching–let alone convincing–the unbelieving crowd or substantially edifying believers for work among unbelievers, The Case for Christ can be at least comfortably viewed among both adherents and reasonable skeptics alike. At the very least the aftermath of the viewing should be fruitful on some level, and the film’s content would actually be useful in turning on the light in the discussion without turning up the heat.
+ Mostly believable characters and interactions + Sharp dialogue + No demonizing of unbelievers
- Some moments and character behaviors don’t fit well or are not well justified - Apologetic material can be oversimplified
The Bottom Line
Faith-based films still aren’t where they’re supposed to be; but for the genre in general, and Pure Flix in particular, this is a major step in the right direction.