When I take the TGV—the super-fast train from Strasbourg to Paris—on legal business, I always buy a copy of the weekly Officiel des spéctacles to see what is going on in the City of Light. On my latest trip, as I examined the list of films playing, what did I find? Amazingly, tucked away among the listings was “Jésus: L’enquête” (The Case for Christ)—described as the story of an atheist converted to Christianity.
Of course I could not resist. The film was not playing at the major theatres to which I ordinarily go; in fact, it was listed as playing in only three cinemas. I picked the one that was most centrally located, near the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Elysées. As it turned out, I constituted 50% of the audience (2 persons total in attendance).
The film is biographical: the conversion of American journalist Lee Strobel. What are the pluses and what are the minuses?
Technically, “The Case for Christ” could hardly be bettered. The acting, the photography, the direction are all at the level of the best of Hollywood standards. The French subtitling was impeccable (though voice-dubbing would have been more effective). The producers were smart enough to enlist in a cameo role a known (though now long-in-the-tooth) Hollywood star, Faye Dunaway, in an obvious effort to capture an audience of non-religious film buffs.
There is much valuable apologetics material included in the film. Brief interviews occur with actors representing defenders of the faith such as Gary Habermas and William Lane Craig. (Habermas is a personal friend, and I was Craig’s first apologetics professor—though I am never mentioned in the credits or otherwise.) The important Journal of the American Medical Association article confirming the death of Christ from crucifixion, over against “swoon theories”—an article I introduced into the apologetics arena years ago—plays a significant role.
The film is obviously the product of Baptists, and they cannot resist pushing their doctrinal orientation. Thus Strobel’s wife goes through a full-scale, down-by-the riverside immersion baptism, and Strobel’s post-conversion professorship at a Baptist institution is emphasized in the credits at the end of the film. Of course, we cannot object to Baptist money, and the film obviously cost someone an arm and a leg; but wouldn’t it be nice if classical denominations, such as the Lutherans, spent money doing the same thing, only better? Problem is that the Lutherans are far more concerned with the internal life of their churches than with evangelism to a secular public—and have little interest in apologetics (doubts are apparently supposed to evaporate through preaching and liturgy).
The main problem with the film is that it is Strobel-Strobel-Strobel rather than Jesus-Jesus-Jesus. Strobel’s real problem is not so much in the area of evidence as in the psychological sphere. He has a bad relationship with his father—and a psychologist whom he interviews points out that the great atheists such as Freud (who held that God is a projection of the father image) have all had bad relations with their fathers. Strobel’s central concern is with his marriage: he believes that his wife’s conversion somehow substitutes Jesus as husband for Strobel himself.
The contrast with the conversion of St Paul is striking. The account of that archetypical occurrence in the Book of Acts is thoroughly Christ-centered. Saul/Paul himself is a minor figure in the drama: “Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’” (Acts 9:3-5).
It couldn’t hurt our Baptist converts and filmmakers to read a little Luther. We suggest as a start—even though Baptists are not prone to the use of Creeds or Catechisms–the Reformer’s explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed, from Luther’s Small Catechism:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.
Should you see The Case for Christ? In our time of pagan film production, very definitely. Should you take unbelievers to see it? Absolutely. There is enough good apologetics material there to assist the non-Christian to a conviction of the factuality of our Lord’s historical existence, resurrection, and divine claims.
But be sure to refocus from Lee Strobel, his family, his accomplishments and those of his children, together with his Baptist connections—to Jesus Christ. Every conversion should be Christ-centered and should be presented as such. Anything else creates the tremendous danger that we will be substituting our human experiences for the work of the Holy Spirit, the sole source of a genuine passage from death to life.
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Readers of the Global Journal will certainly be acquainted with Francis Collins, who, unlike many scientists today, has made clear that his scholarship operates from a Christian perspective. But that commitment does not exempt him from responsible criticism, and the present issue features a serious critique of Collins’ position by Dr Hendrik van der Breggen, of Providence University College, Manitoba, Canada (http://apologiabyhendrikvanderbreggen.blogspot.ca/). Vol. 15, No. 1 of the Global Journal also contains a trenchant analysis by Dr Andrew Hollingsworth of the semantic theory of the late Italian uomo universale Umberto Eco, best known for his novel and film The Name of the Rose.
John Warwick Montgomery