The Case for Christ (2017)

B+ SDG Original source: National Catholic Register

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.

Directed by Jon Gunn. Mike Vogel, Erika Christensen, L. Scott Caldwell, Brett Rice, Frankie Faison, Haley Rosenwasser, Renell Gibbs, Faye Dunaway. Pure Flix.

Artistic/Entertainment Value

Moral/Spiritual Value

+3

Age Appropriateness

Kids & Up*

MPAA Rating

PG

Caveat Spectator

Minor thematic elements including medical description of crucifixion; a mildly rude expression.

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.

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.

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 Jonathan Janz (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.

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.

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 the theory fits Strobel’s case; at any rate, the way the film links the alleviation of Lee’s father wound and his eventual 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 Lee if he 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 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.

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: 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.

Religious Themes

Related

The Shack REVIEW

The Shack (2017)

Like many popular sensations, from Titanic to Twilight, from Dan Brown to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, The Shack is easy to rip apart if one has a mind to.

Hillsong – Let Hope Rise REVIEW

Hillsong – Let Hope Rise (2016)

Possibly the best and most cinematic sequence in Hillsong – Let Hope Rise is a montage that strikingly captures how the music of the Australian Evangelical church-based praise band Hillsong United touches, and unites, people all around the world.

Greater REVIEW

Greater (2016)

Greater has three surprises, which is three more than most faith-based films, particularly of the inspirational sports-movie variety.

Ben-Hur REVIEW

Ben-Hur (2016)

On paper, and sometimes even on screen, there’s some promise and potential in this remake of Ben-Hur.

Becoming Blessed Óscar Romero ARTICLE

Becoming Blessed Óscar Romero

The recent beatification of Óscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador from 1977 until his assassination in 1980, has drawn new attention to the gap between public perception and reality regarding this popular but controverted figure in El Salvador’s turbulent history. For those interested in beginning to understand who Blessed Archbishop Romero really was, the Christopher Award–winning 1989 film Romero, starring Raúl Juliá, isn’t a bad place to start.

The queasy appeal of “God’s Not Dead” ARTICLE

The queasy appeal of “God’s Not Dead”

Mirroring its populist tale pitting a devout young undergraduate against Kevin Sorbo’s hostile philosophy professor, the faith-based hit indie God’s Not Dead sharply divided enthusiastic faith audiences and scoffing critics.

REVIEW

The Song (2014)

A faith-based romantic drama with a country music milieu, The Song is couched as a contemporary reimagining of the life of King Solomon, son of David.

POST

God’s Not Dead [video] (2014)

I took two minutes to talk about this one, and still got in less than half of what bothered me about it.

POST

Son of God [video] (2014)

After ten years, Jesus is back on the big screen. Was it worth the wait? Son of God: my “Reel Faith” review.

REVIEW

For Greater Glory (2012)

For Greater Glory tells a story of religious freedom and oppression that is far too little known, and that would be important and worthwhile at any time, but is strikingly apropos in our cultural moment.

POST

For Greater Glory [video]

For Greater Glory in 60 seconds: my “Reel Faith” review.

REVIEW

Courageous (2011)

Coming on the heels of Fireproof, Courageous is the fourth film from Sherwood Pictures, and it’s another step forward for the church-based film company … While the film’s church-based roots and the tendency toward didactic, schematic storytelling are still in evidence, Courageous is their most ambitious and watchable film to date.

REVIEW

The 13th Day (2009)

The 13th Day is the best movie ever made about Fátima — the most beautiful and effective, as well as one of the most historically accurate.

REVIEW

Amazing Grace (2006)

The title reflects the supporting role of John Newton, played with gusto by Albert Finney, as a penitent ex-slave ship captain, now a mentor of sorts to Wilberforce as well as the writer of the beloved American hymn. (“A wretch like me,” Newton was not afraid to call himself in the original lyrics, with a biographical and theological honesty too direct for the revisionist vandals of hymnody responsible for many missalettes and hymnbooks.)

ARTICLE

Bella: Metanoia Films’ award-winning first film about wounded hearts, family and a crisis pregnancy celebrates love, life and understanding

For Verástegui — a former boy-band and telenovela heartthrob known to Latino fans as “the Mexican Brad Pitt” — the mission is simple. “Hollywood doesn’t belong to the studios,” he recently told Decent Films. “Hollywood belongs to God. And we need to take it back. And that’s what I’m trying to do, by example first, trying my best every day to be involved in projects that will inspire people to use their talents to do something positive for the world.”

REVIEW

Bella (2006)

In the end, Bella has something to challenge everyone, pro-life or otherwise. For pro-lifers, the inspiring ending represents a call to love of neighbor. It isn’t enough just to oppose abortion: We are called to love those in need with the love of Christ, potentially at a cost to ourselves. For those who favor abortion, the ending represents a challenge to recognize that life is a beautiful and precious gift even in far from ideal circumstances, and the choice to embrace life, even when it involves great sacrifice, is also beautiful.

REVIEW

One Night with the King (2006)

Christians lamenting the state of Hollywood sometimes flippantly comment that this or that Bible story “would make a great movie — intrigue, sex, violence, spectacle, etc.” This, though, is not a recipe for a great movie, but for a mediocre one. The story of Esther could certainly be made into a great film. One Night with the King is not that film. In some ways, it’s not even that story.

REVIEW

Facing the Giants (2006)

With fans of its two genres, especially in the Bible Belt, Facing the Giants will doubtless be a success. To reach a broader audience, though, the filmmakers will have to scrap their playbook and learn a whole new set of rules.

REVIEW

Thérèse [The Story of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux] (2004)

“Ordinary girl. Extraordinary soul” is the tagline of Thérèse, Catholic actor-director Leonardo Defilippis’s reverent, uplifting, straightforward biopic of the Little Flower. Of the tagline’s two clauses, the film’s special burden seems to be the first part, “ordinary girl.”

Romero REVIEW

Romero (1989)

“A good compromise choice” is how one observer describes the 1977 appointment of Oscar Romero (Raul Julia) — a conservative, orthodox, apolitical bishop of a small rural diocese — to the archbishopric of San Salvador. By the time Archbishop Romero’s tempestuous three-year tenure comes to its violent end, “compromise” is a word no one will ever again think of in connection with him.