An authentic story with nuanced characters and complicated relationships, The Case for Christ is unlike any other explicitly Christian film you’ve seen.
Based on the best-selling apologetics book, the film is based on the life of Lee Strobel, an award-winning crime journalist at the Chicago Tribune whose life is turned upside down when his wife becomes a Christian. Lee then undertakes an investigation into Christianity, interviewing a variety of experts on the credibility of the story of Jesus.
But while the book is a strictly non-fiction apologetics piece, the film takes a look at the story behind the book, putting prime focus on the tension between Lee and his wife. Thanks in large part to a great performance by Mike Vogel, the tension between the two of them is authentic and genuine, and serves as the film’s driving force. Make no mistake, this film is about their relationship. The interviews serve that primary story rather than supplanting it, and the film is all the better because of that approach. The critical response attests to that. The film has garnered a fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes of 77% positive at the time of this writing. Compare that to a measly 33% for War Room and 21% for October Baby (which I liked, by the way), and the difference in quality, and potential for cultural influence, becomes abundantly clear.
Even more noteworthy is the complexity that each of these characters show. Leslie is at first timid about her faith, and when she does articulate it, she does so clumsily. While Lee is clearly more in the wrong, attacking her verbally and coming home drunk, her mentor suggests that maybe she isn’t listening as well as she thinks she is, showing that Christians are also imperfect and vulnerable. In contrast, Christian films have often depicted Christians as flawless and atheists as militant and amoral. God’s Not Dead is particularly egregious in this respect. That is not the case here. Lee, though flawed, is shown from the beginning as genuinely committed to his wife and kids. His mentor, also an atheist, occasionally chides him for not being more understanding of Leslie.
The result is that the film is able to have its cake and eat it too, in a sense. Not unlike segments of God’s Not Dead, it inserts apologetics into the narrative, which range from the multiplicity of New Testament manuscripts to the mass hallucination theory to the medical evidence of Jesus’s death on the cross. And yet, because the story of their relationship is the main event, those parts of the story never quite seem hackneyed or forced. In that way, the film whets the audience’s appetite for apologetics, but still functions as a film should in that its primary purpose is to tell an emotional story.
But while all of this makes it a very strong Christian film, there are negatives here as well. While the film avoids many of the pitfalls of Christian film, it still uses cheesy sermon excerpts and bible quotations that don’t add a lot to the story, and may remind viewers of the more preachy moments of other Christian films. Thankfully, these moments are couched in between moments of real tension in the film, which mitigates the overly rosy effect that these moments often produce, but their presence still feels out of place with the more truly cinematic feel of the rest of the narrative. Secondly, Lee’s strained relationship with his father isn’t developed very well. He’s clearly angry with his father and there’s clearly some of that blamed placed on his father, as Leslie tells Lee “People can change.” And yet, we’re never given a very clear picture on what the cause of that strife was. While this could have added complexity to the character, it seems more like a set-up for another emotional moment rather than a purposeful fleshing out of the character.
So no, this film is by no means perfect, but it is good enough that it’s earned the right to be discussed as a real movie. That’s more than can be said for the vast majority of Christian films. With The Case for Christ following up 2016’s Risen, I am hopeful that we may be witnessing a true uptake of Christian film that could result in some powerful cultural influence, should these films continue to increase in quality. With good acting, a compelling script, and nuanced characters, it’s a major step forward for Christian film.