All together there were five of us sitting comfortably in the dark. Truth be told, I was a little surprised I wasn’t the only one there. This movie wasn’t going to break any box office records after all, and it was 10am on Friday.
I first read The Case for Christ as a teenager. My mom worked at an evangelical Christian bookstore in Red Deer, Alberta, for much of her life. It was called “Gospel Books and Music” before it relocated to much bigger premises and strategically rebranded under the banner of an American franchise: “Parables Christian Marketplace.” Thanks to online retailing and digital books, the store is now a shell of its former self, run not so much for profit as for conviction.
When it first came out in 1998 The Case for Christ was displayed prominently at the front of the bookstore. Eventually, after initial interest faded, it would find its place in a rather small, mostly neglected section labelled “Apologetics.” This is where books written by evangelicals defending their faith were located. In most cases these evangelicals proceed as if theirs is the only form of Christianity in town, and typically on the equally Protestant assumption that by calling their belief “faith” it is felicitously free from the delusions of (ritualistic Catholic) “religion.” To judge by the metrics of shelf space, though, Red Deer’s evangelical readers were not terribly interested in apologetics. Infinitely more popular, or at least tangibly more profitable, were books by pastors and spiritual leaders. To find these books you simply made your way to the largest sections in the bookstore, labelled “Christian Living” or “Spiritual Growth.” Two evangelical points to you if you’re reading this and you recognize the name Max Lucado or the title The Prayer of Jabez.
What Lee Strobel managed to do in The Case for Christ was to make apologetics into an investigative drama that spoke to that most touchy of evangelical issues, intellectual inferiority. It’s no accident that a preeminent American historian by the name of Mark Noll, himself an evangelical, had published The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind just a few years earlier in 1994. The scandal of Noll’s title was that evangelicals don’t have a mind because anti-intellectualism was a part of evangelical identity. In recent decades this has led American evangelicals to feel misrepresented in the culture at large. They seem to think that their cultural and spiritual convictions have been dismissed unfairly. This became spectacularly clear in 2016, with the election of President Donald Trump. The Case for Christ assuaged this longstanding evangelical anxiety, and in doing so it joined a small batch of similarly-themed books, such as Josh McDowell’s classic in the genre, Evidence that Demands of Verdict. And yes, for those keeping track so far, many such books were authored by white American men.
The Case for Christ is a book that seeks to answer questions about the historical reliability of the New Testament, questions about Jesus’ identity, teachings, and behaviour, and questions about Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The movie of the same name, which I found myself drawn to out of a mix of nostalgic curiosity and an irrepressibly evangelical desire to understand my fellow Christians, includes some of the book’s interviews but not all of them. Instead the movie offers a series of scenes in which Lee Strobel challenges various experts with seemingly tough questions. At one point in the movie Lee flies from Chicago to Los Angeles, presumably at his own expense, to interview a medical doctor who insisted on meeting face-to-face. But upon arrival the doctor barely has time to welcome Lee as he rushes around a lab doing vaguely scientific things while responding to Lee’s hapless questions. It won’t come as any surprise that the experts get all the best lines and win all the debates, both in the book and in the movie. Watching, it’s clear most of those interviewed are Christians, but we don’t learn that most of them are also conservative evangelicals.
The Case for Christ tries to tell two stories: one about Lee Strobel’s journey to evangelical faith, and one about the intellectual battle surrounding the truth of evangelical faith. But, generally speaking, evangelicals regard the story of faith in Jesus Christ as the truly primary story, and this must come through in any work of art. That’s why your local megachurch’s only theatrical offering might be a Christmas pageant or Easter drama. In this respect, The Case for Christ succeeds. It is the latest movie through which evangelicals can hold up a Hollywood-style mirror and admire themselves, a balm for the sting of secular criticism. In the same way they were relieved to find, through the 2006 movie Amazing Grace, that they could unproblematically count the abolitionist William Wilberforce among their historical number. These movies offer a morally exemplary tale, and they do so in a manner consistent with a central aim of much evangelical art: edification.
As I sat in the nearly-empty movie theatre I was once again reminded of how deeply saturated I’ve been in the evangelical subculture. For even as I’ve spent over a decade outside of its bubble, I’m fairly certain some evangelical cues passed my conscious notice. Others, such as everyday talk of God’s providence or devotional Bible-reading, were more obvious. That said, I was impressed with how well the movie captured the evangelical mannerisms and ways of speaking I’m familiar with. And in a way I’m grateful for this sincere presentation, even if it failed to approach anything close to beauty. Neither the acting, nor the directing, or even the cinematography in The Case for Christ were noticeably subpar, as is so often the case with movies made for evangelical audiences. Instead, as vehicles for a specific message, they were competent, workmanlike, and served their edificatory purpose.
Surprisingly enough, the overarching story told in the movie is not, as the title would have it, the case for Christ. In the opening montage, Lee establishes himself as a journalist and as a family man. As the story gets going Lee and his pregnant wife Leslie are out for a celebratory diner when their daughter suddenly starts choking on a gumball. A nurse intervenes and saves the day. As the Strobels recompose themselves and thank the nurse, she tells them she knew she had to be there: it was a God thing. Here we meet with an evangelical way of framing providence: what seems like an everyday coincidence is really God’s hand at work. The nurse’s words and conviction strike Lee’s wife Leslie profoundly. Within a few scenes she’s saying “the sinner’s prayer,” that key moment of evangelical conversion, and attending what would become one of America’s most famous megachurches (Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek). The rest of the movie hangs on whether or not Lee, a declared atheist, can accept Leslie’s decision. We watch as Lee struggles to complete his regular work while simultaneously attempting to debunk Christianity, traveling to conduct interviews and working into the early hours of the morning. All he wants is his normal family life back.
The movie’s chosen narrative makes the truth of evangelical Protestantism fuse with the familial harmony of white, middle class, megachurch America. That, in fact, is the story of The Case for Christ. It is a tale, like the truth of evangelicalism, whose endpoint is never really in doubt. The crucial scene in which Lee comes to evangelical faith is set in a suburban living room. As he acknowledges his newfound belief to his grateful wife, in confirmation of both providence and her heartfelt prayers, the camera pans out, so that we can see husband, wife, and a baby carriage with a newborn child.
After the credits started to roll I decided to ask my fellow Christian movie-goers a question: what did they think? An older man seated behind me had a simple, direct response: the movie demonstrates the power of one person. For, as we were reading on the screen, Strobel went on to sell more than 12 million books worldwide. One person’s testimony could change the world, in other words, like the archetypal exemplar, Jesus. The older gentleman also mumbled something about “the facts.” A middle-aged couple seated closer to me agreed with him. They were happy to see a decently-made movie about Christianity in the theatre, but they also emphasized how good it was, in their words, to be reminded of the factual truths upon which Christianity rests. In short, the movie was edifying and exemplary.
The Case for Christ repeatedly underlines the importance of the relationship between “the facts” and “the truth.” At first it is a question of Lee Strobel the journalist, impartially seeking “the facts” in order to uncover “the truth” of some particular story for his newspaper. A secondary plotline in the movie has Lee investigating a case where a criminal informant shot a Chicago policeman, and he follows “the facts” doggedly, even at some personal cost. In the same way Lee pursues truth and justice in journalism, we are all too obviously meant to see, he pursues the truth about Christianity.
At one point in the movie, when Lee seeks counsel from a mentor and fellow atheist because he’s been frustrated by his efforts to demolish Christianity, the mentor alludes to Bertrand Russell, an important twentieth-century philosopher whose atheistic criticism in Why I Am Not A Christian is a touchstone for both. What this scene conveniently offers us is an important insight, though one not at all intended by the movie. For it is not what separates Russell the atheist from Strobel the evangelical that’s most significant, but what they share. And what they share is a particular way of framing rationality. For both Russell and Strobel reason is disengaged from meaning or metaphysics, deployed objectively as an instrumental tool. A reasonable person, as this view assumes and every viewer of Law & Order knows, approaches the facts as independently existing entities. Facts, after all, are truth’s gatekeepers. Disengaged, instrumental reason ascertains the facts by working with and sometimes correcting the senses, all according to some given logical standard. Russell and Strobel both employ reason in this way, as a lawyer arguing a criminal case might, because they are both adherents to that longstanding, venerated philosophical tradition of empiricism. They simply arrive at different conclusions when they apply instrumental reason to Christianity.
But what if this conception of reason is wrong? One of Russell’s students, who went on to become an equally famous philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, certainly thought so. And what if this view of reason obscures the fact that human beings are fundamentally self-interpreting animals? One of today’s most prominent philosophers, Charles Taylor, has spent his entire career making precisely this case. For Wittgenstein as for Taylor, there is no independently existing objective realm to which we can appeal for “the facts,” aligning truth neatly and transparently with its purported order. This means, to state what may now be obvious, that the Russells and Strobels of this world have misunderstood reason and in so doing what it means to human. If so, the strongest case for Christ and the strongest objections to it must be made by other means.