Faith-based films have fallen on hard times. Or maybe they’ve just hit their stride. Ask any two people, you’ll get two answers.
In one sense, there are more explicitly Christian-themed movies produced about Jesus, heaven, and the church than ever. Risen, Pure Flix’s God’s Not Dead 2, and The Resurrection of Gavin Stone—to name a few—all hit theaters in the last year. And most aren’t struggling to survive the cost of their production budget either. Case in point, the first God’s Not Dead film, which released in 2014, raked in just over $60 million (on a $2 million budget).
This is not a documentary where we just spew out the evidence. It’s a story about a spiritual journey and the evidence for the faith.On the opposite side of the pew, many decry the modern faith-based film and make a clear distinction between these projects and movies that survey Christian themes with honesty, humility, and authenticity. God’s Not Dead may have struck gold among evangelicals, but its portrayal of spiritual skeptics and Christian triumphalism remains problematic at best.
Cue The Case for Christ.
Based on the bestselling book by Lee Strobel, Pure Flix’s newest film tells the true story of a Chicago Tribune journalist who undergoes a quest to debunk Christianity after his wife converts and joins a church. Directed by Jon Gunn (with screenplay adaptation duties by Brian Bird), the film adaptation hits theaters nationwide tomorrow.
I’ve read The Case for Christ, as well as a handful of Strobel’s other books, and I’ve always appreciated their grace and rationality. But films are different from the written word. How might Strobel’s journey translate to screen? What questions will the film raise, or attempt to answer, about faith and unbelief?
Recently, I chatted with Strobel about some of these questions, asking him specifically about the method and motivation behind The Case for Christ—and what this says about how Christians should defend the faith. The interview that follows has been edited slightly for clarity and length.
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Christ and Pop Culture: It must feel bizarre knowing a film was made about your life. Personally, I don’t know if I could watch myself on the big screen. What’s the strangest part of seeing your story become a movie?
Lee Strobel: It is bizarre. It’s surreal. It’s emotional because we show the good, the bad, and the ugly. We show my life before I was a Christian, which was very narcissistic, drunken, self-absorbed, and self-destructive. The film shows the difficulty in my marriage.
My wife Leslie has watched the movie seven times. When I asked, “Why do you keep watching it?” she said, “Because I want to get cried out before I see it in public. I want to get all the tears shed in private. I don’t want to embarrass myself.” Some of the scenes are so ripped out of our lives, that it’s like reliving them. I remember when I walked onto the set of the Chicago Tribune newsroom, which they built on a soundstage in Georgia, I felt like I’d been in a time machine.
CaPC: I don’t know if you know this, but one site ranked Mike Vogel, who plays you in the film, the 96th sexiest man on television in 2011. Does that make you feel pretty good about yourself? I always wonder who would play me in a movie about my life.
Strobel: I did not know that! That’s hilarious. You know, I could never grow a mustache, but that looked very 1980s, so they had him wear a mustache. I did have the long hair, but I didn’t have his good looks. I thought they were going to get Jack Black to play me. I thought that would have been an appropriate choice.
CaPC: I want to talk with you for a moment about the film’s approach. Good theology can still make a bad movie. How did the team behind The Case for Christ take a 300-page book defending the Christian faith, and attempt to create a piece of art that’s not just true, but also beautiful and compelling?
Strobel: That’s really the challenge, isn’t it? This is not a documentary where we just spew out the evidence. It’s a story. It’s a love story. A story of a marriage. A story of a father and a son who have a difficult relationship. It’s a story about a guy framed for a shooting he didn’t commit. It’s a story about big-city journalism. But, as you say, it’s also a story about a spiritual journey and the evidence for the faith.
You used a key word: art. You want this to be first and foremost an entertaining movie. A film that people enjoy, and walk away thinking about. And The Case for Christ accomplishes that. By focusing on the resurrection, instead of getting caught in the woods of a bunch of other trails the story could have taken, I think we’re able to build a pretty good case [for Christianity]—given the limits of a single movie.
It’s almost that balance between truth and grace that the Bible talks about. Here we have the truth of the Christian message, the evidence for the Christian message, the facts behind the Christian message, but also the grace, also the story, also the humanity. And that is a very fine line to walk. I believe the film walks that line well. And even though in the past there have been some “cheesy” Christian films, and films that have maybe caused people to cringe a bit—I don’t see that in this movie. I just see a well-done film that, also, I believe will stimulate people to say, “Maybe I should go on my own spiritual journey.”
CaPC: Over the years, I’ve appreciated your work as an apologist. I’ve also respected the approach you’ve taken with your books. I feel like they have something to offer everyone—Christians, spiritual seekers, agnostics, and atheists. Yet, I haven’t always felt this way about faith-based films. Most just don’t appeal to audiences outside of the Christian sub-culture. In your opinion, how do you think skeptics will respond to The Case for Christ?
Strobel: Well, here’s my candid answer to that. Will a lot of spiritual skeptics come to a movie called The Case for Christ? I don’t know. I question how many will.
But here’s what I think is going to happen: I believe Christians will come to the movie because maybe they’ve read the book or they’re intrigued by the story. I think the evidence is so well laid out in the film, the entertainment factor so high, the importance of the message so great, that many Christians are going to walk out and say, “Wow, that was a great film, but my uncle—the skeptic—needs to see this. My brother, my neighbor, my colleague at work, they need to see it.” Those names are going to come into their mind, and then they’re going to call them up and say, “Tomorrow, do you want to come with me? I’m going to see this movie again, and I think you’d enjoy it.” That’s how I think we’re going to get the more skeptical people into the theater—through a relationship, through a friendship.
And I believe, honestly, that the most important moment of the movie is going to happen after it’s over. It’s going to happen in a coffee shop, when the Christian and the spiritual-seeker sit down and talk about the movie. “Which character do you relate to? What did you think of the evidence? Where are you at spiritually? Have you ever thought of checking out things the way that Lee did?”
I believe that conversation is going to be the most important moment of the film.
CaPC: Along those lines, I was reading through a marketing packet for The Case for Christ movie, and it talked about how the film can be used as a tool for evangelism. There’s a line in it that refers to the plot like this: “Strobel’s investigative research definitively proves the cornerstone of the Christian faith, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” The phrase “definitively proves” is a big one. In your opinion, does the film set out to “prove” Christianity? If not, what do you think the film’s intention is?
Strobel: I personally shy away from phrases like “definitively proves”—those aren’t my words. However, few things in life can be definitely proven. 1 + 1 = 2, perhaps, can be definitively proven. But, though I don’t generally use it, there’s a sliding scale of what “proof” means. In a criminal trial, it’s beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s a lesser standard—it’s clear and convincing. Or, it’s preponderance of the evidence.
Do I believe the evidence points powerfully and persuasively toward the truth of Christianity? Yes. And I believe this movie shows that. Do we “definitely prove” it? That’s a matter of opinion. We all take a step of faith one direction or the other. The question is, is the step of faith in the same direction as the evidence is pointing?
For instance, I’m sitting here drinking a glass of water that my wife poured for me. This could be poison. But, the evidence suggests that it’s not. The glass is obviously clean. My wife is not motivated to hurt me. The water looks clear. It doesn’t smell suspicious. So, based on that evidence, I taste and see that it’s good. Well the Bible says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” We take that step because the evidence gives us confidence that he [Jesus] is who he claimed to be. So, I don’t think we need to “definitely prove” anything. I think we have to show that the evidence points in a direction where the most logical and rational next step is to take a step of faith, and to receive this free gift of grace that God offers.
CaPC: Not too long ago, I was in a church service where you talked about the validity of the Christian faith. I thought your message was gracious, personal, and thought-provoking. You encouraged listeners to follow Christ, but you also acknowledged that there might be some who may feel like they needed to put more thought into their decision. How do you think Christians can better model this type of graciousness when talking about faith?
Strobel: Absolutely, we—as Christians—have to validate people as being made in the image of God. We have to respect the fact that they are on a spiritual journey. We have to understand that people often have spiritual sticking points that are holding them up in that journey. And we want to help them get beyond those sticking points.
But the average American who comes to faith has heard the gospel, I think it’s 6-9 times. It’s a process. It took me two years, and if someone had pressed me for a decision after one month, I would have recoiled and gone the other way. So, it’s often a process. I think we have to understand that, and we have to respect that, and I think churches have to facilitate that. We must create an environment where spiritually curious people feel the freedom to come, to experience, to ask questions, to seek over a period of time—as they’re on this journey toward the cross.
CaPC: Films like The Case for Christ (and even apologetics in general) can often be used in one of two ways by Christians. They can be a battering ram we use to triumph over our enemies and make ourselves feel good about our beliefs, or they can be a way for us to better love God with our minds and share the logic of our convictions with others. How do we achieve the latter instead of the former? And how do you think the movie does this?
Strobel: I think the key phrase that I like to use in the 21st century is “conversation apologetics.” In other words, this is part of relationship. It isn’t that we line up someone against the wall and machine gun them with fifty facts for the faith—like maybe what was done fifty years ago. Today, it’s conversational apologetics. It’s a relationship. It’s creating a safe place where people in a friendship can talk, over time, about the issues they have. The obstacles, intellectually; the sticking points, spiritually.
I think God honors this perspective because we’re respecting someone who’s made in his image, who has legitimate questions. You don’t want to microwave the process. It’s a Crock-Pot process—in the 21st century. Crock-Pots make great meals. Some people need to marinate in this for a while before they become convinced Christianity is true.
They’re going to emerge stronger in their faith because they’ve spent the time asking questions upfront. And as Jesus said, counting the cost before they make that decision. I always like to encourage people, if they’re ready, to put their trust in Jesus. But I always like to have that other step for people and say, “You know, if you’re not ready yet, that’s okay. Keep checking it out. Keep investigating. Do your own journey.”
Here’s the deal: I’m not afraid of anyone who investigates Christianity with an honest and open heart.
The Case for Christ plays nationwide tomorrow. Watch the film’s trailer below: