Burden of Proof: "The Case for Christ" Heads to the Big Screen
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In 1980, young Lee Strobel was on top of the world. After winning a prestigious journalism award for his investigative reporting, he was promoted to legal affairs editor at one of the country’s most respected newspapers, the Chicago Tribune. Pretty rarefied air for a 28-year-old just a few years removed from college.
But Lee wasn’t happy. The source for his consternation was his wife, Leslie. But his dismay was not based on infidelity, financial strain, or a lack of communication. Instead, Leslie had fallen in love with Jesus and become a Christian. This did not set well with Lee, an avowed atheist.
Rather than accepting her newfound faith, Lee set out to disprove every last tenet of Christianity to prove to his wife once and for all that this “Jesus-thing” was nothing but a myth. But he couldn’t. Instead, through exhaustive research Lee eventually wrote the polar opposite of what he originally intended – a mammoth bestseller titled The Case for Christ.
Based on this book that has sold millions of copies over the last two decades, The Case for Christ movie, starring Mike Vogel (The Help), Erika Christensen (Parenthood), and Oscar-winner Faye Dunaway, opens in theaters nationwide on Friday. It is a thought-provoking yet tender glimpse at coming to grips with mankind’s greatest time-tested truth.
Making this movie proved to be a bit of a challenge. Taking what was essentially a 300-page apologetics book and turning it into a two-hour drama for the big screen was no easy task. But the movie’s director, Jon Gunn, saw something in the relationship between Lee & Leslie Strobel that he felt could hold people’s interest.
“It is grounded in a love story,” says Gunn, who previously directed Do You Believe? “And so what could otherwise be a dry intellectual pursuit has extremely high emotional stakes. It’s a husband and wife who were living happily together until the wife found Christ, and that, from the husband’s point of view, is going to destroy their marriage. It’s the inciting impetus for him going on this pursuit.”
But what was it about Lee & Leslie’s relationship that had such appeal?
“They were a couple who would argue sometimes and not speak for days. These aren’t necessarily things that you might associate with a faith film, but it was the rough around the edges humanness of them as a couple,” Gunn explains. They’re funny, they’re smart, they love each other, they’re high school sweethearts, they’re building a family together, and he’s quickly finding success as a young journalist. There’s a lot for them to hold onto and a lot for them to lose, and then faith unexpectedly embeds itself right in their midst.”
For screenwriter Brian Bird, his background as a former newspaper reporter aided him greatly in not only understanding how Lee Strobel approached his job, but also for his knack of finding the story within the story.
“I knew that in order to do this right, we had to do a personal story. I needed to drill down and find out what about this period of their lives was dramatic. Coming to Christ, that’s huge. That’s the biggest transformation anybody could ever ask for, but what was it like inside that house? What was it like inside that marriage when Leslie becomes a Christian first and Lee is saying, I’ve got to rescue my wife from the cult, because the Bible thumpers got her. His whole motivation for The Case for Christ was to debunk it, to disprove and prove that it was all a big con.”
Despite being a quality production, many non-Christians could stay away from the movie because of what some in the industry believe is a blatantly heavy-handed title. Bird, who has written other successful titles like Captive and Not Easily Broken, sees something very different.
“This movie’s probably going to attract a lot of Christians and that’s good because it will reinforce and encourage them in their beliefs and their ability to hold onto the truth and veracity of Christ,” Bird points out. “But if this only reaches the choir, it won’t be worth it to me. People outside the faith need to consider this case. When I was doing the research, that’s what got me going. I want to do a movie in such an entertaining way that I suck them into that theatre for a very powerful experience that will stir up cravings in them and cause them to want to have some big water cooler conversations with their neighbors.”
Vogel, who plays Lee Strobel in the movie, is one such person who has been stirred by The Case for Christ. He read the book as a high schooler and found that it had a profound impact on his life.
“I was a massive history buff growing up,” says Vogel, who has also appeared in The Help and Blue Valentine, both Oscar-nominated films. “Seeing the historical evidence, taking the faith aspect out of that, putting that aside and just (considering) the historical evidence of the amount of sources that exist, it’s so close to Jesus’ actual life and the time period of the disciples. It essentially dwarfed many sources from other historical figures that we had. Just seeing that stuff laid out, it floored me.”
Based on his previous experience with the book, it seemed only natural that when the script for The Case for Christ came his way, Vogel would be interested. He was. However, Vogel was a bit apprehensive about the role but not for typical reasons.
“For years now I’ve been doing film and television and I haven’t engaged the faith-based world because I feel like at times we’re afraid to show the real story,” he explains. “We like to clean it up and make it squeaky clean, at which point I look at it and say, well then, what were you ever saved from? Bringing that (unvarnished events in the Strobels’ life) into the story was exciting to me, to show the imperfections, the chinks in the armor to the finished project was exciting.”
While the Strobels are nervous about their lives being portrayed to millions, it’s not every day that a Hollywood studio comes calling to make a movie about you. From their perspective, Lee & Leslie think that Pure Flix got it right.
“There are scenes that are so right on it’s as if you’re reliving the experience. It’s chilling and emotionally gripping for us,” says Lee Strobel. “We’re willing to go through that in the hope that God might use this to prompt a whole bunch of other people to begin their own spiritual journeys.”
The Case for Christ opens Friday in more than 1,000 theaters nationwide.
See a trailer for The Case for Christ:
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