“Stop blaming me, and the church, and God, and do your job!”
That exclamation from a Christian to the character of atheist Lee Strobel in Pure Flix’s The Case for Christ (based on the book of the same name) landed on my soul like an affirming balm. I wanted to fist-pump. Echoing in those words is the frustration and annoyance of Christians worldwide and down through the millennia.
It’s not that getting mocked for our faith surprises us (as long as we’ve read our Bible). What’s frustrating is how lazily it’s done.
Weaksauce is the best word for most arguments arrayed against the Bible’s validity these days. The works of the Greek greats get a more rigorous, less emotionally compromised day in court than the Bible does (a point this film explicitly remembers). For all the world’s triumphant proclamations that the Holy Scriptures were debunked decades ago, most of the smoking guns end up jammed upon serious examination, and the few interesting questions that remain are evaporating one by one in the light of modern archaeology. (If you want a religious tome that’s really ground chuck, have a go at the Book of Mormon, which features scimitars, chariots, and European livestock in the 5th-century Americas.)
Featuring Mike Vogel (last seen being obliterated by the Cloverfield monster’s tail) as Strobel, a rising journalist at the Chicago Tribute in 1980, The Case for Christ seeks to investigate the resurrection of Jesus, without which our faith, as both the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 15:17) and Mr. Do-Your-Job point out, collapses beyond repair. It sticks to the path initially promised in God’s Not Dead before that movie head-faked into opaque preachiness, while at the same time providing human stakes in the form of Strobel’s threatened marriage – the crisis that precipitated his investigation in the first place after his wife converted to Christianity.
The results are mixed. This may make me a rebel to say, but I have often found myself disgruntled by Christian films. They tend to be pat, sanitized, and decidedly on-the-nose. They obviously aren’t targeted for unbelievers, a missed opportunity of Biblical proportions (sorry, I’ll see myself out). Conclusions are mostly foregone, robbing the film of any tension – a must-have for any film that wants to deeply affect a viewer. A notable exception was 2009’s To Save a Life, with some genuinely cringeworthy-but-true-to-life moments, no easy answers, and faulty men of the cloth. It was one of the few Christian films I’ve seen that “got real”, to use my generation’s vernacular.
Case for Christ doesn’t quite reach that sphere. Every believer Strobel encounters in the film is entirely gracious (with the possible exception of the brusque portrayal of Dr. William Lane Craig), although so are the atheists. The conflict between he and his wife is acted with low-key tension but leaves you with the sense that more could have been done. The apologetics passages, in which facts are offered that place the Biblical resurrection accounts in new perspective, are simply…there, cinematically speaking. Interesting, valuable, but inert, like a spoiler on a Honda Accord.
But now that I think about it, perhaps that’s the point. Though there’s something to be said for Christians being the best at everything we do (including cinema), in this case the message is bigger than the messenger. The facts of the resurrection are facts, regardless of whether they are slickly delivered. They matter. They have an impact. A responsible filmgoer, I think, should be willing to allow his worldview on the resurrection to be shifted by these facts (and the film does choose some doozies for its facts) even if the film doesn’t land the punches all that well. That’s the nice thing about facts: as is so often being said these days, they don’t care about your feelings.
The film’s best passages, ultimately, are the ones between Strobel and his wife, understated as they might have been. The drama pulls you back in whenever they appear. Erika Christensen and Vogel are quite watchable, as is the remainder of the cast; Robert Forster and Faye Dunaway make eye-raising but effective cameos; and old hand L. Scott Caldwell (Rose from “Lost” – you know you were looking for Bernard, too) floods her every scene with her wonderful scrunchy-mouthed grace. I will say I was surprised to find Christensen, a noted Scientologist, portraying the overflowing love that the true presence of Christ would naturally generate, given that Scientologists don’t even share our faith. Ah, but I guess their celebrities have always been outside their rules.
It was also nice to see a reasonable depiction of a brain-tinged conversion story. I have seen the occasional blogger question the validity of Lee Strobel’s conversion (and that of C.S. Lewis in the same breath) on the grounds that it was intellectual in nature, and not from the pull of the Holy Spirit. “The Case for Christ” demonstrates how it needn’t be an either-or thing. The Holy Spirit has many tools, and both crisis and love are shown to be amongst them here.
Details provide a level of enjoyment. Chicago gets to show off under the solid cinematography. It’s nice to see Strobel faithfully scribbling at his notebook in response to new information, even when it challenges his assumptions. Watching him interact with 80s tech (pay phones, typewriters) eloquently makes everyone feel old. A revealing parallel plot about a wrongly accused cop-shooter could have used a little more time, as could the morsel about the world’s most virulent skeptics being the children of poor or absent fathers. That is a deeply troubling reality in our society, one that could spawn great discussion. And the film ends abruptly, rather like Rogue One (but with fewer plot holes).
Ultimately, there are numerous avenues, other than attacking the resurrection, that skeptics travel to attack Christianity. It’s outside this film’s scope to address them all. We’re still waiting for a truly great film that is written for the unbeliever’s benefit and exists to persuade and love rather than preach. But by the end of The Case for Christ, you efficiently and warmly arrive at what seems to be God’s intention: that Christianity is a reasonable faith if you’re looking for one, and that it requires no greater a step of faith than atheism. The next step, as it was for Strobel, is up to the viewer.