Movie Review: “The Case for Christ” gets tossed out of court

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Dry, unemotional and — considering the subject matter — uninspiring, Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Christ” is a faith-based drama about one atheist’s research-driven conversion to Christianity.

It’s got a great hook. An accomplished, skeptical journalist investigates the “case” for Jesus dying on the cross and rising from the dead as a means of turning his just-found-Jesus wife away from religion.

But the film, based on Strobel’s book, is so emotionally flat and slow that it forces you to pick up on its ridiculous circular logic and pick apart the half-hearted “reporting” and questioning its hero undertakes. The “case” he makes is seriously unconvincing.

In the film, Strobel (Mike Vogel of “The Help” and TV’s “Under the Dome”) is a rising star at the 1980s Chicago Tribune, top dog on the paper’s reporting on Ford’s exploding gas-tank econo-box, the Pinto. He even got a book out of it.

At a celebratory dinner, his daughter (Haley Rosenwasser) almost chokes to death. A nurse, dining at the restaurant, intervenes. 

But don’t credit Nurse Alfie Davis (L. Scott Caldwell). “Jesus” did it, she insists. And Mrs. Strobel (one-and-only “Swimfan” Erika Christiansen) believes her. She doesn’t believe in coincidences, or in the odds that a crowded restaurant in big city would have one person who knows the Heimlich maneuver.

Lee cannot accept her rejection of their shared atheism. And taking guidance from a fellow skeptic on the newspaper staff (Brett Rice) and an editor/believer (Mike Pniewski), decides to follow the edict taped to the newsroom wall.

“If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

And then he makes his first misstep. He lets the believer on staff define the parameters of the story. Debunk the Resurrection, “and the whole thing falls like a house of cards,” he is told. So that’s where he hunts.

“Experts” throw figures like “there were 500 different witnesses” to the dead Jesus returning to life, according to “ancient texts.” Unlike Homer’s “The Iliad,” (a spurious comparison), there are thousands of those texts, all hearsay dating from some time after the events described. And while the movie has Strobel blurt out “Just because I write something and bury it in dirt doesn’t make it true,” and pays lip service to whether they’re “reliable” eyewitness accounts (all women) or not, that’s a weaselly way of avoiding the hard questions.

The movie Strobel explores assorted skeptic hypotheses, the favorite ones cited by Christian apologists. The “Swoon Theory” (Jesus wasn’t dead, he fainted and woke up) takes a whipping, courtesy of a doctor/scientist (Tom Nowicki of “The Blind Side”). “Mass psychosis” among these witnesses is dismissed by a famous psychologist (Oscar winner Faye Dunaway).

And Dr. Waters doesn’t leave it there (or consider, for instance, the “mass psychosis” of thousands who testify that they’ve been abducted and probed by aliens, for example). Do you have Daddy issues, she wants to know? Because all the great skeptics (as defined by the movie’s Christian apologists) did! Attack the fellow asking the hard questions, why don’t you? C

Well, sure, Strobel says. He’s semi-estranged from his dad (Robert Forster). And the “arrogant” reporter, given to drinking and flying off the handle about sharing his wife with Jesus, is about to wreck his marriage over this as well. That’s another trope of such films, the “angry” committed atheist.

But what’s any of that got to do with rounding up the provable and separating it from the un-provable or provably false?

A parallel story follows Strobel’s blundering into a crime story where he reached his conclusion before thoroughly finishing the reporting. That’s one of the ways he convinces himself that he’s been looking at this Christianity thing all wrong, that “mind already made up” thing.

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But that’s not logical. Reporters make mistakes, but botching that story doesn’t “prove” the false conclusion of another. And “The Case for Christ” is riddled with such fallacious reasoning.  The mini-debates here sound like versions of the climate change “debate,” where one side is operating with facts and the other is forever barking, “case CLOSED,” based on this or that not-quite-germane theory or assertion or gut feeling.

“Case” is a movie built on straw men. That’s a classic propaganda/PR trick where you win an argument by defining the other point of view according to your own prejudices. Goebbels, O’Reilly and Limbaugh are famous for this.  False equivalencies and phony syllogisms abound.

The film makes astute, unimpeachable observations about people who find Jesus in times of crisis — a tragedy or near tragedy or a big mistake (See Colson, Chuck).

But Strobel’s book and the movie based on it limit the parameters of the debate in an effort to fix the outcome of that debate. Strobel’s pre-Internet hunt for experts is circumscribed. He maintains that as a reporter they were telling him what he didn’t want to hear. Balderdash. These are cherry-picked authorities. The man made a fortune and built a family business out of this “Case,” but pointing that out isn’t fair, is it? See how that works?

There are plenty of modern scientist debunkers, but the best his fellow skeptic/editor/mentor can toss out is Bertrand Russell? I was shocked the movie waited almost two hours before trotting out that favorite Christian apologist of them all, C.S. Lewis, an academic who knew a good fairytale when he read one, or published one.

Vogel’s performance lacks spark, or much of anything beyond a lovely 1980 vintage mane of hair. Christiansen seems a little lost, searching for the pathos of this woman. She manages scenes calling for a scolding tone, but nothing with any heart built into it pays off. The Jon Gunn (“Like Dandelion Dust”) direction is perfunctory, by-the-numbers and slack.

The historical Jesus is fascinating to many, and each reference and tidbit discovered about his real life by legitimate, credentialed researchers adds to the picture that a book pieced together from oral histories, written and re-written and edited by committee hundreds of years after his death falls short of delivering.

Let’s leave The Council of Nicea out of this, shall we? No sense muddying the waters. Strobel was a reporter, used to dealing with editors and seeing texts altered by committee, compromised, changed to fit expediencies of what is known or what will get you sued. He never made the leap to “They were this political group compiling this book hundreds of years after the events depicted in it, based on oral traditions altered and finagled to fit dogma?”

The mists of time conceal much, which benefits every religion (save Scientology and Mormonism). Faith is meant to fill in the blanks that hard, factual truths leave can’t reveal. Biblical literalists trip over this time and again. Why waste energy and credibility trying to “prove” that which cannot be proven and has never been duplicated in recent (more documentable) history? The Shroud of Turin? Seriously? If your faith is strong, why try to twist “facts” to make these homilies, life lessons and sermons more than they provably are?

The tropes it trots out, the arguments it repeats, the circular logic that it relies on, make the movie feel like one we’ve already seen. “The Case for Christ” won’t convert any critical thinker, but more disappointingly, it fails as faith-based entertainment. It’s a house of cards built to defend a house of cards, with meek-inheriting-the-Earth acting in the bargain.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements including medical descriptions of crucifixion, and incidental smoking

Cast: Erika Christiansen, Robert Forster, Faye Dunaway, Rus Blackwell, Tom Nowicki

Credits: Directed by Jon Gunn, script by Brian Bird, based on the Lee Strobel book. A Pure Flix release.

Running time: 1:52

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29 Responses to Movie Review: “The Case for Christ” gets tossed out of court

  1. I totally agree with your review. Regards, Goat from Ruthless Reviews.

    • Subhfan Fontanills says:

      I do not know if this is your case, but sometimes people look at this movie genre with jaded eyes because of cynicism, or because of hardened hearts. Maybe a roller coaster can provide the emotion or thrill you are looking for. I am positive every Christian who has seen the movie is touched in ways you can not fathom. You see, this is not a matter of emotion but a matter of being convicted on the fact that Jesus did rise from the dead! A historical event, unlike a scientific experiment, can not be duplicated, but it is not our mission to argue with every single person we encounter to satisfy their skepticism, God will take care of that in due time.

      • cosmicstargoat says:

        Oh, but I can fathom. I was a Christian for decades and my father was a minister. I was saved, baptised, the whole works, so I am very familiar with the subject matter and the emotion associated with religious cults. There is no evidence of anyone ever rising from the dead, only claims from religious believers.

      • TheG says:

        People can also look at a movie genre with cotton candy eye and be easier on films because of nostalgia and a desperate need to confirm something in which they’ve invested everything. This entire genre relies on the confirmation bias and rose-tinted lenses of these “touched” christians.

  2. Your comment that the New Testament we have today is “a book written and edited by committee hundreds of years after his death” is grossly inaccurate. I would encourage you to study the papyri manuscripts of the second century and check out the book “How We Got the Bible” by Timothy Paul Jones.

    • I’d suggest you approach this subject with a detachment that you are quite incapable of, as my account is provable and factual, and yours is faith-affirming comfort food.

      • Ron Morales says:

        Given the obviously hostile point of view you carried into this review (e.g. “an academic who knew a good fairytale when he read one, or published one,”), your request that others approach this subject with detachment is laughable. But James is right. The letters of Paul, for one, were written in the 50s, a couple decades after Christ. and most historians secular and otherwise agree that at least most of them were written by Paul himself, and hence not by a committee hundreds of years after the fact. Regardless of the merits or lack thereof of this movie, your history is just wrong.

      • The letters were copied, edited, etc., for decades before reaching the first finalized, disseminated “print” form. Word of God? Word of Jesus? Word of Paul? Word of Paul transcriptionist, 44 times removed? You’re ignoring what you need to ignore to create “eyewitness” veracity. Council of Nicea/Nicene Creed is shorthand for “accepted version,” “scriptural,” or to be blunt — “hearsay by believers contorted by time, edited by those with an agenda.” There’s nothing unimpeachable pre-Nicea, and all watered down homilies afterward. Paul was the first to put the Resurrection down on paper, and that was decades after an event he did not witness. Your “history” isn’t history at all. That’s why Biblical literalism is the same dead-end it’s always been. Not gonna find Noah’s Ark. It never existed. Faith fills in the holes in the “story.” Take faith out of it by trying to prove the unprovable, and as the movie points out, “the whole house of cards” falls apart.

      • shon says:

        Keep in mind comfort food is not necessarily a one way street.

  3. Your review makes me think that if the movie was rated BEST in the world by all standards and movie critics, you would still give it an F if it mentioned Christ. Conviction bleeds from your words.

  4. Wow, not many have your take on this movie…perhaps this movie rustled your non-believing of Christ.

    • Plenty of critics, among the few who dared review it, did. It’s in nearly 1400 theaters, and has sold less than $10 million in tickets. It hasn’t sold one million tickets yet. “Not many” is right. Nobody’s bothering with it.

      • cosmicstargoat says:

        The track record of Christian movies is so poor that like you said, viewers and critics alike are ignoring it in droves. IMDB has barely 700 votes on this thing and only 16 critic reviews. I had to force myself to go see it because I really wanted to give it a good review. Regards, Goat at Ruthless Reviews.

    • TheG says:

      MetaCritic score of 51 with no positive reviews, Variety gives it a D-, LA Times gives it a F-, not a single review that wasn’t penned by a fanboy on a Netscape blink-tag site was above a 6/10, user reviews are actually less at 4.9/10… seems like both serious people and the general public agree with him that this movie is a turd, but I get the feeling evidence isn’t the kind of thing you pay attention to anyway…

    • cosmicstargoat says:

      I was too bored to have anything rustled. This movie had zero appeal to non-believers, just like Strobel’s book. I could convince no one who was not already a sheep.

  5. Cre8tvnrg says:

    You are a ‘ journalist’, get the author/main character’s name right, it’s STRobel. Also this movie is based on his life and a true story, if you’re unconvinced it doesn’t really matter… The truth is, the truth.… Not based on your opinion or if you believe it or not. If you want to write an honest critique, leave your opinion out of it.

    • Uh, I did. On all accounts. And it’s a review, sport. That’s the very definition of OPINION. As to “Truth,” Strobel proved little to nothing, but the bar is low on “truth” for folks like you.

    • cosmicstargoat says:

      “Leave your opinion out of it” That is hilarious. What do you think movie reviews are? Your comment breaks the irony meter as Christians are some of the most cement-headed opinionated people on this planet. Thanks for the laugh.

  6. Eric Myhrer says:

    Sounds like an atheist who didn’t like facts that went against what he believed in. Maybe we’ll have a movie about a movie critic who converts to Christianity in a few years.

  7. Cris says:

    You know you’re making that comment on every “Christian” movie out there. Lol. No???

    • Oh? Did you miss my reviews of “Miracles from Heaven”? “Soul Surfer” “Risen”? “The Nativity Story”? There’s a search box on the home page. Do your homework before going ad hominem.

  8. Baroda says:

    A biased and prejudiced review. Downvote!

    • The reason the VAST majority of critics, most of the biggest names aggregated on Rotten Tomatoes, metacritic, etc., skipped reviewing this is there’s no arguing with people whose faith won’t let them see entertainment quality, honest intellectual argument or anything else when it concerns a faith-based film. I am aggregated by one and all — RT, Metacritic, Fandango, IMDb, and I know what to expect — enraged comments, “I’m praying for you” posts and the like. But I am calling it as I see it. Get bent out of shape, or don’t, I do not care. The movie is intellectually dishonest pandering that a cynical Chicago Tribune reporter made a fortune from. Get your mind around that.

      • cosmicstargoat says:

        I left a rare user review on IMDB commenting on all the predictable 9’s and 10’s given to the movie by people who are obviously Christian. No objective viewer, believer or not, could give that mess of a movie that high marks. It was just not a good movie, all of the logical fallacies notwithstanding. Strobel’s “evidence” has been scrutinized for a long time and he wrote the book nearly 2 decades after his conversion. He was hardly objective in his book and the movie was laughable as a convincing trope for theism. The movie can only appeal to those who are believers and will not change their minds, regardless of the weakness of the presentation. There were not 500 eyewitness accounts, but the claim of one person that there were 500 accounts. Your review was spot on and the criticism of it by believers is ridiculous. Carry on with the good, objective work.

  9. Michael Gilbert says:

    Very interesting review. I’m a Christian who once considered himself agnostic to say the least. I always like reading the critical reviews because… well, those are the ones that matter. I have read the book but I haven’t seen the movie yet. I will tell you that the book wasn’t terribly convincing for me either. From the sounds of your review, sounds like the movie might be even less detailed. I would just say this my friend; your review came across as somebody who has genuinely been hurt by religion and wants to hurt it back. Whether we’d like to realize it or not, science and philosophy need each other. Science is the how and philosophy is the why. Without the why, we don’t need to know the how. One cannot exist without the other. You seemed too hasty to be discounting one of the greatest philosophical minds of the last century. As a journalist, you cannot refute the fact that C.S. Lewis has ran circles around over 90% of the authors out there in the last 100 years. Additionally, many of the points he makes are harkened back to Aristotle and Plato. My point is that he is an incredibly accomplished author who is referenced in both Christian and secular fields of study. I’m only pointing this out for your own good. Religion is a heavily debated topic, but public consensus and recent history is something that’s a little harder to refute. Your light-hearted criticism of C.S. Lewis, as off the cuff as it was, affects your credibility, not his or the film’s. I would just encourage you to perhaps put a little more thought into your reviews and a little less emotion.

    Overall though, fairly insightful review from somebody who obviously is highly critical of religion, which isn’t a bad thing. Just remember, people ruin people. I hope your perception of God, if any, is not based on a bunch of idiot humans but rather, a deeper attempt to understand the why and how hopefully. Hit me back if you wanna talk more. I could talk this stuff all day.

  10. Rev. Dr. Roland Kern says:

    I am an Evangelical Christian and tend to agree with much of this Critic’s review. When I read “A Case for Christ” and “A Case for Christmas” I felt let down because of the circular/weak arguments (exactly as this critic pointed out). They may work at a sort of “lay level”, but tend to foster a sort of Christian smugness – which goes even further to turn people off. Good Apologetics will never prove anything where, at best – it will show that Christian belief has merit and can be reasonable. I do see some double-standards in this writer when he writes about using the “Straw man” approach; likewise it appears he has an axe to grind against the church (perhaps with good reason). I’ve often told lay-persons not to argue about “evolution” with a biologist – they’ll just make believers look even more ridiculous. It’s embarrassing when Christians betray their own ignorance. Yet I still can’t get over how cynical this Critic is. For apologists that can “hold their own” c.f. Norman Geisler, Alistair McGrath (PhD in micro Biology – Oxford), Alvin Plantinga; and Peter Kreeft (Professor of Philosophy at Boston College). As a Christian I would hope other believers would respond without reacting defensively, ignorantly, or patronizingly (I know that’s not really a word…is it?). I will say this – I’m so sick of the cheese in Christian film. I think the last good faith film I saw was “Chariots of Fire” (Ironically directed by a Muslim). Other noteworthy films with a good faith message: “The Mission” (DeNiro and Irons); The Gospel According to John (Christopher Plummer); “Blue like Jazz” (a good film to turn churchy’s off); and “Joex Noel” – probably my favorite Christmas film. Would love to hear this reviewers opinion on these films – sincerely.

  11. shon says:

    The council of Nicea was not about editing the Bible, this is something even non-Christian historians familiar with the time period agree on. Good articles on the topic;
    http://www.livescience.com/2410-council-nicea-changed-world.html
    http://www.equip.org/article/what-really-happened-at-nicea/

    Concerning the reliability of the accounts I would recommend the book “Cold Case Christianity” as a good starting point for delving into the reliability of the accounts, nice little piece below;
    http://coldcasechristianity.com/2016/10965/

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