It’s finally happened. Despite all of the odds, a Christian film is being regarded as a good film.
And not just by Christian audiences, either. The Case for Christ, based on Lee Strobel’s internationally best-selling apologetics book, is currently sitting at 77% on Rotten Tomatoes. Among the outlets to give it positive reviews are Variety, Forbes, and, of all places, The Huffington Post. So why this film? We’re used to Christian films being universally panned by critics, so why are all of these outlets, many of them traditionally left-leaning, giving a Christian film so much praise? And what can that teach us about engaging with secular culture as Christians?
The key, I think, comes from another secular review, this one in The Hollywood Reporter. Frank Sheck writes, “this religious-themed drama earns points for proselytizing in more narratively compelling form than usual.” It’s hard to deny that there is an idea of “proselytizing” in the film. Whereas Strobel’s book focuses on the facts that led him as an atheist to convert to Christianity, the film also present the facts that led to his conversion. And yet, this time it’s in a more “narratively compelling form.” Why? The answer is quite simple. It’s because Jon Gunn, a professional filmmaker rather than a pastor, understands the difference in medium.
Too often, Christian storytellers have approached art like another method of preaching. But that’s not the purpose of the medium. The Case for Christ understands this. Whereas the book is interested primarily in the sharing of information, the film is interested primarily in the sharing of a story. That story is the relationship between Lee and his wife Leslie, which reaches unprecedented heights of tension when Leslie becomes a Christian. The narrative, however, does not mostly focus on why Lee is wrong in his atheism. That comes later. For the majority of the story, we’re focusing on these two characters, their relationship, and how Leslie’s conversion is radically changing both of them.
Therein lies the lesson for Christian artists who delve into story. Documentaries are concerned with facts, but fiction is concerned with characters. We stick with characters not because we agree with facts they are speaking, but because we relate to them and want to see how and why they change. The way to do this is not through sermons delivered via dialogue, but through relationships and change. Gene Veith Jr., in his book Reading Between the Lines, explains this as portraying actions and consequences, which will speak our worldview and the theme of our story. People hear sermons all of the time. If they don’t hear them from the pulpit, they hear them from religious people in their lives. What is your story going to communicate to them that a sermon can’t, or can’t as effectively?
And when communicating to them, we need to keep in mind the implicit things that our portrayal of ourselves and others gives to non-believers. In the film God’s Not Dead, the character who speaks for atheism does so with unrelenting aggressiveness and bitterness. He’s a college professor with a vendetta against Christianity, and targets the Christian student in the class in such a manner that it’s a wonder he doesn’t spontaneously sprout horns and a pointed tail. The character speaking for Christianity, on the other hand, is sincere, relatively eloquent, and almost completely devoid of flaws. The point of the film is not the changing of the characters, but the message they tell (this is not, to be fair, a problem in the Christian film genre alone).
No doubt, there are some mostly faithful and eloquent Christian college students, and there are some militantly atheist college professors. But in the broader picture of the world, viewers know that this frequently doesn’t represent reality. All of us know some atheists or agnostics who are the very least kind people, and we all know Christians who are intellectually dishonest or are hypocrites in some facet of their lives. In fact, more often that we’d like to admit, the latter description of Christians is more accurate than the former. So when non-believers, who’ve had this negative experience with religious folks and possible a positive experience with the non-religious, see films like this, they see it as posturing and chest-beating to tell the world how good we are. The non-believer knows we aren’t, so he or she walks away insulted, and certainly far from convinced.
To be fair, there are no religious hypocrites in The Case for Christ. But it does understand this conflict, and strives to correct it. Leslie, a new Christian, actually acts like a new Christian. She is sometimes rather ineloquent in talking about Christianity with Lee, and is multiple times in serious fear that her marriage will end over this. What’s more, her Christian mentor suggests to her that maybe she isn’t listening to her husband as well as she thinks she is. Rather than being held up as a Christ-like example of perfection, Leslie is a young Christian still struggling to learn how to swim in her new, rapidly changing world.
On the other side, Lee is clearly more in the wrong than Leslie is. But his mentor, who is also an atheist, encourages him to make sure Leslie knows he loves her, and to consider the cost before he goes trying to tear down her faith. In many ways, the atheist mentor is actually a good mentor. The lesson here is an important one not only for storytelling, but also for evangelism and our everyday interactions with unbelievers: if we look at the world as though everyone who aligns with us is good and all who align against us are bad, we have a broken worldview. Atheists will not always be demonic antagonists and Christians will not always act in a way worthy of the name “saint.” The film reminds us of the need to approach people fairly and honestly, and to throw away the “us vs. them” mentality in the marketplace of ideas.
The lessons here for any who act as ambassadors for Christ are many. But the biggest lesson is this. If we want to have cultural impact as Christians, we need to be empathic rather than preachy and honest rather than divisive. That, combined with the superior cinematic quality of The Case for Christ over other Christian films, has given Christians a step forward in the cultural conversation. Let’s take advantage of that opportunity.
Logan Judy is a Christian blogger and science fiction author with a Batman complex. At A Clear Lens, he focuses on worldview analysis and pop culture. In addition to his work on the ACL website and podcast, he is also the founder of Christian Entertainment Reviews, and the author of three novels. He tweets @loganrjudy about writing, apologetics, entertainment, parenting, and Batman.