The Case for Christ (dir. Jon Gunn)

Posted: April 12, 2017 in Uncategorized

“The Case for Christ” is the story of an atheist journalist who gets upset when his wife converts to Christianity, so he decides to investigate Christianity in the hopes of debunking it. I am reminded of a line of dialogue from Dr. House: “If you could reason with religious people, there would BE NO religious people.” Even if our journalist, Lee Strobel (Mike Vogel, doing his best Billy Crudup impersonation) somehow managed to concretely disprove “Christianity”, proof never seems to be a problem for the most devout of believers. Modern scientific advancements and historical evidence have already definitively disproved the Creation Myth and a number of other Old Testament stories, but people still believe in them. Strobel’s wife, Leslie (Erika Christensen, a long way from “Swimfan”) doesn’t really push her beliefs on her husband, so the only issue I can see is the potential indoctrination of their children. Luckily, the film shows us Lee condescendingly explaining Jesus from an atheist standpoint to their daughter in order to nullify this concern, as commits the sin of forcing his beliefs on their child first. Regardless of whether the initial conflict of two married persons with kids having different faiths is a serious problem for a relationship or not, the solution to that problem is not a journalistic investigation.

So the basic set up for this film is flawed, but not nearly as flawed as the execution. “The Case for Christ” is brought to us by Pureflix, the Christian movie studio that brought us the hilariously awful “God’s Not Dead” series. The real life Lee Strobel is a Christian apologist who played himself in “God’s Not Dead 2”. The audience for this film are Christians who want their view of the historical veracity of Christianity confirmed, and will enjoy cheap shots at atheists, who are always portrayed in these movies as condescending assholes. Granted, I myself am an atheist and often a condescending asshole when it comes to discussing religion, but not every atheist is me, or Dr. House, Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory”, Dexter, Rick from “Rick and Morty”, or every other atheist you see portrayed in modern fiction. A lot of this modern condescension comes from the rise of evangelical influence in politics that came with the George W. Bush administration, as well as religious politicians pushing against gay and trans rights and other important issues, combined with 9/11 being a partially religious-motivated terrorist attack and a greater public consciousness of religious-based violence from certain Jihadist groups around the world. If those of us who are secular did not view religion as being a dangerous force in politics, that condescension would likely dissipate into mild amusement, but I digress. The intended audience for this film wants their preconceived notions validated, not challenged, so the film delivers on that score at the cost of it being intellectually bankrupt.

How does one go about debunking Christianity anyway? Does one attack the very historicity of the events depicted in the New Testament? Does one settle for attacking the Old Testament and draw the conclusion that the New Testament falls apart if the foundation that is the Old Testament crumbles? Does one ignore the historical questions of the events themselves and simply look at the recovered historical documents and debate their authenticity? Do they question why some documents are considered canonical and others are not? Do they compare the early Christian church’s beliefs and the later church’s beliefs to simply poke at the infallibility argument? Do they ignore Christianity altogether and just go after the concept of an omnipotent, omniscient god? How about just attacking the underlying philosophy of Christianity? Or contradictions in the New Testament? There are so many conceivable lines of attack that it can make one’s head spin.

Lee Strobel, and thus the film, decide to narrow the issue to a single element: the resurrection of Jesus. One co-worker of Strobel’s tells him that if he can disprove the resurrection, the rest of the religion falls like a house of cards. For a two hour film that wants to be the Christian version of a journalism movie, a film like “Spotlight” or “Zodiac” or “All The President’s Men”, this narrowed focus works well enough. With the elements being narrowed, the film has enough time to provide us with a B story. While Strobel is investigating Christianity in his spare time, his day job as a newspaper reporter has him assigned to the story of a police officer who was apparently shot be a repeat offender. The circumstances of this shooting are such that it seems plainly obvious that the suspect is guilty, so Strobel of course goes along with that obvious conclusion based on the evidence. How much money do you want to bet that Strobel will have overlooked other evidence, find out that the suspect was innocent all along, and Strobel will thus be punished for his cockiness in jumping to conclusions. How much additionally would you like to bet that this B story will mirror the A story investigation into Christianity?

If you’re keeping track, we now have three story threads: Investigation into the Resurrection, investigation into a police shooting, and marriage troubles. Is that enough for the film? Nope. We also have a brief story thread involving Strobel having a poor relationship with his father (Robert Forster, who deserves much better than films like this). This story thread only exists for one reason: to paint all atheists as simply being people with daddy issues, and are thus lashing out at their heavenly “father”. I shit you not, this is one of the bullshit arguments the film makes. Hell, one scene in the film exists only for this reason. At one point in the film Strobel visits a psychologist, who the film helpfully tells us is agnostic, to see if the people claiming to have viewed Jesus walking around after his death could be suffering from a form of mass delusion. This psychologist is played by…Faye Dunaway. I shit you not, Faye Dunaway is in this movie for a single scene, and her entire purpose in the film is to argue that people are only atheists because they have daddy issues. She’s gone from “Chinatown” and “Network” to THIS? She deserves better than this. A few token famous atheists are mentioned as having daddy issues, including Freud (whose own theories were often as lacking in fact as religion) and Nietzsche. Since we’ve learned from “God’s Not Dead” that Pureflix doesn’t understand logical fallacies, I must point out to them that correlation, if one actually exists beyond the token names given here, does not prove causation.

Perhaps I should go back to the beginning and tackle the steps Strobel takes in this investigation. When the film begins we are told that Strobel is a very good journalist. He’s had a book published about his investigation into the Ford Pinto, and is now a cocky hotshot around the newspaper office. One night he goes out to dinner with his wife and daughter, and the daughter asks for some change to get a gumball out of a candy machine. He gives her the change, she gets a gumball, and she starts choking on it. Of all the patrons in the crowded restaurant, the only person who seems to know how to do the Heimlich Maneuver is an off-duty nurse (L. Scott Caldwell). Upon saving the girl from choking, the nurse claims that she wasn’t going to go to the restaurant that night, but Jesus told her to. So Jesus is okay with, I dunno, the Holocaust, but he makes sure to personally intervene by telling a nurse to visit a restaurant so she can Heimlich a choking child. Unless Jesus also made the child choke in the first place so that he could them have her saved, which leads to the nurse converting Leslie which leads Lee to investigate Christianity and eventually become a Christian himself. If that’s the case, I’m glad Jesus thinks almost making a child die, and at least scaring that child and subjecting her to the pain from choking and the injuries to the abdominal area that come from the Heimlich, is worth converting one atheist family.

That night the daughter asks her parents who Jesus is, because an upper-middle-class white girl of school age in Chicago would of course have never even heard of Jesus before this incident. Apparently neither her or any of her friends had ever seen so much as one Christmas decoration before. I’m always amazed that the writers of Christian fiction, whether it’s films like this or those Chick Tracts, seem to think a large portion of Americans are unaware of the existence of Christianity or devoid of basic knowledge as to the religion’s beliefs. Regardless, Lee dismisses Jesus as a fairy tale to his daughter, but Leslie has been moved by the incident, starts going to church with the nurse, and is soon an out and out Christian.

Upset, Lee visits a fellow atheist friend of his (Mike Pniewski) for advice on how to de-convert his wife. The friend name checks Bertrand Russell (Pureflix loves argument from authority in that it always name checks people who make arguments without ever telling us what their arguments were, as if mentioning famous names is enough), but Lee states that there’s no way Leslie would be willing to read his famous book “Why I Am Not A Christian” in “her state”. This later prompts Lee to start his investigation. Later in the film, when Lee cannot 100% disprove the resurrection, this atheist friend tells him something that no real atheist would ever say: that just as it takes faith to believe in religion, it also takes a leap of faith to NOT believe. This sort of equivalence between religion and atheism as requiring faith is, of course, idiotic bullshit. When one side has much more evidence for their case than the other side, concluding that the stronger side is correct is not “faith”. Faith is believing in something with NO evidence or IN SPITE OF evidence. But certain evangelical Christians love to say that it takes “faith” to be an atheist. They confuse “faith” with “reaching a conclusion when 100% certainty does not exist or may be impossible”.

Now you would think that a well respected journalist would actually know how to conduct an investigation. They would know how to mine credible sources from non-credible ones, would know what follow-up questions to ask when certain claims are made, etc. The Lee Strobel of this film is not a good journalist. The first person he interviews is Gary Habermas (Kevin Sizemore). Habermas makes some claims that are not challenged by Strobel, the main one being that the Resurrection of Jesus was witnesses by over 500 people. I can think of many follow-up questions to this claim: Who are they? Did they write witness statements that are preserved in the historical record? How did they arrive at that number? What were the circumstances of these events where they witnessed? Locations? Strobel just kind of nods and moves on. He takes this claim as fact and moves on to his next hypothesis.

So the whole “500 witnesses” thing comes from one line of the New Testament. It’s in the First Epistle to the Corinthians. This one line in a document written by Saul of Tarsus, the founder of what we call Christianity, and was at an earliest written 20 years after the date Jesus is normally estimated to have died (30-32 CE), which is still about 30 years before the earliest of the Gospels was written, is hardly definitive, concrete, unimpeachable proof. The source is biased (trying to spread Christianity), and there is no other corroborating evidence, either Christian or secular. Also, apparently another part of the New Testament, Acts, claims that after the Resurrection Jesus’s followers only numbered about 120. So unless someone’s numbers are off the Bible itself claims that 380 people saw Jesus Resurrected and were not convinced.

Later, Strobel talks to a historian in Jerusalem over the phone. It’s worth noting that Strobel travels all over the country in person to talk to other “experts”. Since he’s apparently paying for these flights out of pocket (remember, this is his personal business, not the newspaper’s) he is wasting a lot of money and spending a lot of time away from home when he has a wife, a daughter, and eventually a newborn baby in the family. Anyway, this phone expert tells him to not worry about the differences in the Resurrection story in the four gospels because it’s similar to when eyewitnesses are interviewed by police and their stories are slightly different. Yes, the contradictions in the Bible are just as inconsequential as whether the getaway car at a bank robbery was a blue Honda or a black Honda. Never mind that none of the writers of the Gospels were contemporaries of Jesus, the first Gospel being written about 40 years after Jesus is said to have died, which is a long time to pass for someone who never knew you to write accurately about you in a time when stories were passed through the oral tradition and investigating the veracity of claims for decades earlier and miles away was nearly impossible. One of the biggest problems of this film is that Strobel is willing to accept the New Testament as an accurate historical document so easily. The film doesn’t even attempt to discuss non-Christian historical sources like Josephus.

This film really wants the audience to think the New Testament is viable as a historical document, as opposed to a document which has SOME HISTORY IN IT, but is not historical. Think of it as the difference between a documentary on the Vietnam war versus “Forrest Gump”. JFK is a historical figure, much like Pontius Pilot is a historical figure, and JFK is featured in “Forrest Gump” just like Pilot is in the New Testament. But “Forrest Gump” is still a fictional narrative. I’m not claiming the New Testament is completely useless to historians, because of course it isn’t, but accepting the claims of the New Testament narrative as factual, but with some minor eyewitness misrecollections, is something no good journalist, or historian, would do. That doesn’t stop the film from including a scene where Lee talks to a former archaeologist-turned-priest whose main argument for the New Testament being history is that far more historical MANUSCRIPTS of it exist than of almost any historical document. Okay, but the fact that the New Testament was copied down a lot in history doesn’t make the New Testament ITSELF history. The film specifically mentions about 5800 Greek manuscripts, since they are the earliest ones and the many that came can be credited to being copied off of those, and the preponderance of copies will of course grow as the Christianity itself spreads. Fewer copies of other works can be explained because there’s not as much call in the old world where literacy was a privilege to copy works that didn’t make up religion for the masses and would be enjoyed by the privileged few who were literate and had the time and interest to read. Plus, of those 5800 Greek manuscripts, only about 100 are from the 1st century, and many of those are just tiny fragments of a single page. Far from the entire modern New Testament being unimpeachable history, historians and religious scholars often have a hard time deciding what parts of the book were from the original authors (when we even know who THEY were) and what parts were added and when. The whole process is much more involved and fascinating than this film cares about, and Lee Strobel is such a shitty reporter in this film that he again has no follow up questions, and is simply impressed by such a big number of manuscripts when compared to “The Iliad”, the epic poem by Homer that survived even longer with fewer copies (and is also not entirely a historical document, I would add). You could even point to works from Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia that are older, in better condition, AND original copies. That doesn’t mean the myth of Osiris is history.

Eventually, Strobel ends up chasing after strawman arguments, such as the mass delusion hypothesis from the Faye Dunaway scene. The most absurd argument is when Strobel argues that Jesus survived crucifixion and the witnesses who saw him resurrected were just seeing a living Jesus who was falsely presumed dead. Look, I’m pretty active in some atheist circles, and I’ve never once heard this argument, probably because if you accept the story of Jesus being crucified, the chances of him surviving the details from the Passion are almost 0%. That doesn’t stop this movie from having Strobel talk to a medical doctor about crucifixion. At one galling part of this conversation, Strobel states that Islam believes that Jesus survived the crucifixion. This is partially true. Some Muslims believe Jesus rose bodily to Heaven without being crucified, and some in the Ahmadiyya movement believe he survived crucifixion and died in India. The doctor then points out that the Quran was written in the 600s CE and he says he prefers his history a little closer to the source. Honestly, that’s rich coming from a Christian when there are no contemporaneous accounts of Jesus even existing.

When I talk to other atheists, their attitudes about Jesus fall into 3 categories:
1. He’s a fictional character
2. He’s a composite of a number of real false messiahs who were executed by Rome.
3. He’s a real historical person who was executed, and myths developed following his execution which became Christianity.

“The Case for Christ” isn’t interested in laying the groundwork for the Resurrection by proving Jesus existed as a historical figure, or even do much work in trying to prove the content of New Testament can be trusted as history. It’s argument can be summed up as: The New Testament says it happened, there’s a lot of old copies of the New Testament, and some half-assed partial acceptance of the New Testament (like Jesus surviving crucifixion) make no sense. That does not translate into, as Lee later tells Leslie at the end of the film, “the evidence for your faith is overwhelming”. Not even close.

It is rather weird that Strobel never interviews other atheists in the film to learn their arguments and strengthen his questioning ability. While I have not read the book by the real Lee Strobel in which this film is based, apparently the only “experts” cited in that book are fellow evangelicals. I’m not even sure if the real Strobel ever WAS an atheist, or if he just chose that atheist-who-was-converted angle as a hook to sell more books. A better movie would have tried to deal with atheist arguments against Christianity, not pretend they don’t exist and replace silly strawman arguments in their place. But this film was never interested in playing fair. It’s about giving certain Christians in the audience the same smug sense of superiority over atheists that they think most atheists have over them. The film’s attitude can be described as: “All your fancy love of ‘facts’ and ‘truth’ won’t stop you from the One True Faith. What an IDIOT you were being.” Not to mention Lee is shown in the film to drive drunk and do other bad behavior that no good Christian would be caught doing. Heavens, no!

The film was directed by Jon Gunn (no relation to James Gunn), who previously directed “Do You Believe?” for Pureflix. “The Case for Christ” is, if nothing else, more competently made than most of their films. It has the production quality of a decent TV movie, and the acting quality of slightly better than that. The film is not as unintentionally bad as the “God’s Not Dead” films, and thus not as enjoyable, but credit must be given to them for improving their production values. The problem remains how intellectually bankrupt and disingenuous their films remain. They still resort to knocking down strawman arguments, half-truths about historical evidence, pious platitudes, and argument from authority. They are learning to make better films from a nuts and bolts standpoint, but they still can’t produce a screenplay worthy of the improved value.

“The Case for Christ” is another film preaching to the choir. It’s intended audience will think it’s more intelligent and fair than it is because the film is playing on that audience’s ignorance and naivety about the very religion they claim to believe in. When atheists like myself view this film, they’ll mostly spend it wishing they could pause the movie to add extra commentary, or at least jump in to help Strobel question the “experts”. It’s a better film that most of what Pureflix has produced thus far, but that also makes it less fun. D+

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