Conversion story told in 'The Case for Christ'

“The Case for Christ,” a new faith-based film from Pure Flix Entertainment and Triple Horse Studios, opens nationwide in theaters April 7. It stars Mike Vogel (“The Help”) as Chicago investigative journalist Lee Strobel, a committed atheist who uses his investigative skills in an attempt to disprove Christianity and ends up converting to it. Strobel is today a prominent evangelical Christian author, speaker and pastor, who played a key role in bringing the story of his conversion to the screen, as is detailed in his book by the same name.

Strobel’s conversion story, he explained, “lays out the overwhelming foundation of evidence from which personal faith can rise.”

The story is set in the early 1980s, when Strobel was legal affairs editor for the Chicago Tribune. To his chagrin, he learns that his wife, Leslie, played by Erika Christensen (“Parenthood”), decides to convert to Christianity, bringing conflict into their marriage. He begins a nearly two-year effort to disprove Christianity, interviewing leading Christian scholars, giving them the chance to defend their views. As screenwriter Brian Bird (“Touched by an Angel”) explained, “He thought his wife was in a cult. He loved her and wanted to rescue her from what he believed was a giant con job.”

By the end of his quest, as Strobel himself related, he discovered “it would take more faith to maintain my atheism than to become a Christian.”

Jonathan M. Gunn (“Do You Believe?”) directed the film’s 26 days of shooting in Georgia. He described the film’s story as “a man’s search for truth motivated by his love for his family.”

Bird also believes the film has a broader message of challenging increasing secularism and skepticism in American society.

“We’ve been hit by a tidal wave of cultural and moral change,” he said. “Truth is under assault. I think the ultimate cure for what ails us is the story of God, his Son and the Holy Spirit, and his action in our lives.”

Vogel was excited at the opportunity to play Strobel, noting he had read “The Case for Christ” himself at age 17 and did a similar intellectual evaluation of his faith as did Strobel.

“I had to set aside what others say and get one-on-one with ‘who do you say I am?’” Vogel said. “I dove into apologetics and debate — C.S. Lewis, Tim Keller, Ravi Zacharias and, of course, Lee Strobel. The book rocked my world.”

Bird, however, said Vogel was initially reluctant to play the role, “because he didn’t want to do a bad Christian movie.” A mentor challenged Vogel to read the script, however, and once he had, “He said, ‘This is really good.’ He said ‘yes.’ His casting was a real godsend.”

A key supporting role in the film is played by Robert Forster, who plays Walt Strobel, Lee’s Father. Walt is a gruff figure, estranged from his son, although regretting his contribution to the estrangement. The difficult relationship between father and son is an important theme in the film, Bird believes, because “as Lee will tell you, he has never met an atheist who does not have a lot of baggage accompanying him … they have one thing in common: a big father wound. The father may have died young, abandoned the family or were abusive. All the prominent atheists had the same problem Lee did, and the psychological and emotional problems that go along with atheism.”

In Strobel’s case, Bird related, his father told him at the time of his high school graduation, “I don’t have enough love for you to fill the tip of my little finger.”

The comment wounded Strobel, and the pair never reconciled before Walt’s death.

“He has a tremendous intellect, but is also a deeply emotional man,” Bird said. “It’ been a deep regret of his.”

Bird related an encounter the real-life Strobel had with Forster on the set of “The Case for Christ.”

“As he listened to Lee tell the story of his own father, Robert, while in-character as Walt and looking a lot like Walt, put his arm on Lee’s shoulder and said, ‘Lee, forgive me. I’m so sorry,’” Bird said. “Lee melted down and became a sobbing mess. It touched him deeply.”

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As the film is set around 1980, filmmakers descended upon garage sales and thrift stores in search of ’80s clothes. They also re-created the Chicago Tribune newsroom of the period based on photographs, using, for example, emerging computer technology from the time.

“The Case for Christ” has garnered endorsements from many Catholic leaders and media personalities, including Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who said, “‘The Case for Christ’ is an engaging, beautiful story of a family coming to faith in Jesus Christ, made more compelling by its basis in real events. I warmly recommend it.”

Jim Graves writes from California.