Jon Gunn’s The Case for Christ manages to accomplish what so many Christian films have failed to do. While so few of the characters found in modern Christian films ever really register as real, flesh-and-blood human beings, The Case for Christ is peopled with flawed, struggling characters who live in the same world as the rest of us. That combined with the investigative journalistic nature of the story, and we arrive at a film that, while certainly imperfect, is often effective and occasionally even powerful.
The story revolves around Lee Strobel (Mike Vogel), a Chicago Tribute reporter living with his pregnant wife, Leslie (Erika Christensen), and his daughter. Strobel is an ardent atheist whose skeptical philosophy is rooted in his “just the facts” journalistic mentality. Soon, however, Leslie becomes a Christian, and the conflict begins. As these two characters have discussions which devolve into debates which eventually fall into arguments, the inherent sadness of a contentious household really comes through. So often in Christian film, the more extreme emotions are muted – possibly to keep from making the audience too uncomfortable – but here we finally have a film that really seems invested in recreating the raw emotion that can occur when real people who love each other are frustrated and angry.
Not wanting to simply give up on his marriage, Strobel decides to look deeper into Christianity, applying his stringent journalistic standards to the claims of the Bible. As he goes from one expert to another, he finds that the case he is attempting to make – which is meant to disprove scripture – isn’t coming together quite the way he intended. This is the next thing that the film does well. It’s not at all unusual for Christian films to take every opportunity to throw some Apologetics into their story, but it is often very clumsy. However, like last year’s Risen, The Case for Christ understands that by steering directly into its character’s investigation, Christian arguments and observations can be incorporated organically into the story. This can also allow the film to more openly meditate on these arguments, rather than rush past them to get back to the narrative, as we saw in films like God’s Not Dead. In this film, the narrative is intertwined with the investigation, which means that every new argument functions as an important plot point.
However, were the film to be solely about the observations that Strobel makes, it would eventually grow stale. Where the film really excels is in focusing on Strobel and his wife and their desperate desire to reconcile the differences in their belief systems. It is a film that is about a relationship in transition. This could be the end, or a new beginning; either way, things aren’t going to be as they were, despite Strobel’s attempts to make them so.
Plenty of other Christian films have seen married couples in turmoil. Alex Kendrick’s Fireproof and War Room featured strained marriages eventually solidified around a shared faith. And yet those conflicts seemed so tame, so safe. This is likely due to some sheepish writing and, to be honest, mediocre acting. The Case for Christ understands just how important it is to feature realistic dialogue delivered by professionals with well-honed instincts.
As Lee Strobel, Mike Vogel has a tough job, having to play resistance and skepticism while never becoming too one-note. Thankfully, Vogel imbues his character not as a man motivated solely by what he doesn’t believe, but also by the people in his life. This creates a back-and-forth dynamic within the character himself, and it results in a character that is three-dimensional and relatable. Erika Christensen, as Leslie, might have an even more difficult role, in that she has to play a woman who is becoming more steadfast in her faith, but still doesn’t know all the answers. Leslie’s Christianity might be a source of strength for her, but that doesn’t mean that she does everything right, unlike many similar characters in other Christian films. Christensen plays Leslie as a woman excited to embark on this new spiritual journey, but can never let herself be too enthusiastic. After all, the road she is on could lead her further away from the man she loves; what kind of a life is that? Both Mike Vogel and Erika Christensen can be commended for crafting characters – both individually and together – that feel lived-in and severely human. We feel like we could know these people, which makes their conflict all the more heartbreaking.
That I can see a film that is essentially about a man encountering Jesus and learning to accept him, and come away struck by the character dynamics and the very real social and emotional consequences of religious belief is a testament to just how committed The Case for Christ is to being honest about its characters and their flaws. Of course, as is always the case with a film like this, there are moments when the protagonist asks questions that are a bit too well-timed or on-the-nose so that the film can more efficiently present evidence of the Gospel, but these are blissfully few and far between. Those moments are no doubt important, but not as important than presenting the viewer – both Christian and otherwise – with a portrait of love, faith, and reconciliation.
So many Christian films are motivated chiefly by the need to share the Gospel, that The Case for Christ is a huge breath of fresh air. Ironically, in its desire to commit to its characters and keep their struggles and realizations front and center, it manages to present a more accurate and relatable Gospel than we’ve really ever seen before in the Christian film world. I came away encouraged, challenged, and engaged, not merely as a Christian, but as a filmgoer. And in the mostly artistically-barren landscape of Christian film, that is a true miracle.