Most fans of the New York Times bestseller The Case for Christ don't even know the full story.
With fourteen million copies sold worldwide, many Christians know Lee Strobel by name. A brilliant Yale Law graduate, he used his sharp mind while a Chicago Tribune legal reporter to try to disprove Christianity as just a collection of myths and fables. During an aggressive search for the truth, criss-crossing the country and the Atlantic Ocean for two years, he interviewed Christendom’s most articulate theologians. Strobel became convinced, despite himself, that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, had been crucified, and miraculously rose again as a result of the undeniable evidence.
Lee Strobel is America’s modern-day C.S. Lewis -- a well-respected, intellectual atheist who became an articulate champion of the faith whose life has touched people worldwide.
But there’s more to the story, much more.
Enter Leslie, Strobel's wife. Over the course of time, a good friend repeatedly invited Leslie to visit a new church in suburban Chicago named Willow Creek, founded by a young, charismatic pastor named Bill Hybels. After repeatedly turning the invites down, she finally felt obligated to go once to appease her friend. However, what she heard that day spoke to her, prompting regular visits until she turned her life over to Christ.
Leslie’s pronouncement of her newfound faith to Lee, a hardened atheist, was met with hostility. He had been running from God and the notion of moral accountability all his adult life.
In fact, when I interviewed Lee on the Atlanta-based set for The Case for Christ movie, he confessed, “The first word that popped into my mind was ‘divorce!’ I didn’t sign up for this.”
Lee actually believed that Leslie had become mixed up in some cult. Brian Bird, a personal friend of the Strobels and the screenwriter best known for his work on CBS’ Touched By An Angel, told me, “He’s a guy who lost his wife into a cult – in his mind – she joined a cult. And he wants to rescue her from that cult. So, Lee’s there to prove that it’s a big con. He does all this research to try to rescue her and pull her out of it. But, in the end, he realizes as a journalist, the truth is there, the facts are there, and he can’t debunk it.”
The heart of The Case for Christ in theaters April 7, produced by Pure Flix, is not so much an academic/spiritual exercise as it is a love story.
Casting Mike Vogel (The Help, Under the Dome, Bates Motel) as Lee opposite Erika Christensen (Parenthood, Frasier) as Leslie produced undeniable, authentic chemistry.
In the scene where Leslie (Christensen) revealed in 1980 that she has become a Christian in their kitchen, Lee’s (Vogel) face shows convincing incredulity. He's absolutely flummoxed, speechless at first, and then angry. The tension between her warm faith and his cold atheism is palpable. And it provides the compelling emotional backdrop for a fresh re-telling of The Case for Christ that has only been hinted at elsewhere.
“I didn’t want this to feel like a faith film,” director Jonathan Gunn (Mercy Streets, Like Dandelion Dust, Do You Believe?) told me in my one-on-one interview. “I wanted this to have the perspective that Lee Strobel himself had which was someone who was really challenging the facts of Christianity and ultimately as a man looking to disprove them. As opposed to a lot of faith films, where you feel as though faith is being pushed on you throughout, I felt like this had the opposite approach in a way that was sort of refreshing. Not from someone looking to find those answers, but, quite opposite, someone looking to disprove it. And in doing so, it allows us to scrutinize the faith in a way that is unique.”
What I had not been aware of until that very moment when Lee and Leslie Strobel, Brian Bird, and the producers lined the front of the theater to take questions was that the Strobels saw those four rough-cut scenes for the first time along with the rest of us. After Lee was asked to share some thoughts, it took him a moment, as he tightly held the hand of Leslie, to choke back the emotion and the tears, having just witnessed pivotal moments of their lives on the big screen.
In a roundtable discussion in the Atlanta-based Triple Horse Studio conference room, Michael Scott, the Production Director of Pure Flix Entertainment, explained that The Case for Christ “definitely hits on similar themes as God's Not Dead, an apologetic movie. So we saw the interest there in terms of the genre. But what drew me to it after talking with Lee about his life story, was the underlying story behind it was something that hadn’t been told. He set out on a mission to disprove his wife. That is a theme in every person’s life. They have people in their life -- a family member or a friend -- who doesn’t believe. We are all trying to deal with those same issues. The way he set out to do it, coming to the Lord in the end, will be a powerful testimony to Christians and non-Christians.”
Fourteen years ago, Leslie and Lee Strobel co-authored the book Surviving a Spiritual Mismatch in Marriage which is as much the backbone of this movie as Lee’s bestseller The Case for Christ. One of the many untold stories is that Lee was not only convinced of the truth of Christianity through his rigorous intellectual examination of the evidence, but by the very kind-hearted behavior of his wife who exemplified an unconditional love he had never experienced before.
Not only does the authenticity of their story come barreling through the screen thank to exquisite acting, thoughtful directing, and a carefully crafted screenplay, but thanks to the re-creation of the Chicago Tribune newsroom on set in Atlanta. On the back wall, amidst clocks for Chicago, New York and London, is the jaded, skeptical banner which declares, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
Lee explained after the screening of the select scenes that “they sent me a picture of the Chicago Tribune newsroom from 1980 that they had found online. They asked, ‘Can you verify that this is what it looked like back then?’ He replied, ‘Not only can I verify it, I know the people in the picture, those people are my colleagues.’
“Then to see how they translated that and reproduced that on the set is fantastic, down to the little details over to the clutter,” continued Strobel. “Newsrooms are always cluttered. I understand that today newsrooms look like insurance offices. But back then, they looked like newsrooms. They even had little cigarette smoke coming up at various places from ashtrays. It was thrilling to see. It felt like home when I walked in.”
Vogel pulls off the look convincingly with late 1970’s attire, a handlebar mustache, and that typical men’s hairstyle where the non-gelled hair is thick, covers the ears, and goes an inch or two past the collar. Unfortunately for him, he cut his hair short days before getting the role of Strobel. So, Pure Flix invested one thousand dollars to purchase a wig made out of real human hair, which was specially prepared for his scalp over the course of a week before the first day of shooting, and then is painstakingly glued and woven into his real hair for forty-five minutes every morning during production. Needless to say, Vogel confessed to me, with a smile, “I have a countdown calendar to the wig burning. I hate that thing.”
If it takes an uncomfortable wig to help make an authentic The Case for Christ, then so be it.