Monday, April 24, 2017

The Case for Christ (2017)

I assumed from the title that this was going to be one of those politically driven hatchet-job documentaries like Obama's America and other projects from professional dingbats like Dinesh D'Souza. It is actually something much better (or worse, I suppose, depending on your view): a fictional narrative treatment of the "based on TRUE events" journey of a man and his wife from skeptics to Christianity. It's part of the new "faith-based" Christian market which tends to make a point of blowing up around Easter. Last year it was more of God's Not Dead and Miracles From HeavenThe Shack came out last month. Needless to say, perhaps, The Case for Christ is a fraud made by smug people who are not above distorting the terms of their argument with bluster, if nothing else, for their own advantage. Their idea of proof is to describe flogging in detail—the Mel Gibson argument for faith. I understand they're saving souls and that makes everything fair, so whatever. You buys yer ticket and you takes yer chances. What I found more interesting is the view back that it projects of "worldly" people—self-proclaimed atheists, strutting rationalists, and readers of Voltaire. It's a glimpse into what we look like to them from their world, where they see themselves as persecuted at every step. Christians, of course, are not persecuted at every step, certainly not in the US, where they wield an extraordinary amount of power and always have since the earliest genocides of Native Americans. Churches don't pay taxes. Start with that. Yet the victim theme is prominent and inescapable here, as Leslie Strobel (Erika Christensen) has a conversion experience and embraces sweet Jesus, figuratively leaving behind her husband Lee (Mike Vogel) as she becomes more involved with a church. Lee has a job at the Chicago Tribune as an award-winning journalist and plays chess with his intellectual mentor. He can't believe the way his wife has chosen to fly off to Cloud Cuckoo Land, leaving him behind to fume as the scorned skeptic. For him it's a personal humiliation. But as an award-winning journalist he's also in the perfect position to investigate the veracity of the Christian church's most fundamental claim: that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead. In his spare time Lee also gets a crime case wrong, but that's all part of the story of his hubris too.

Another interesting point for me is that The Case for Christ is set in 1980 and has a lot of obvious affection for period detail. In fact, the production design is generally one of the best parts of it. The clothes, hair styles, cars, and many other things look right, without too much caricaturing. This incidentally suggests that 1980, also known as the dawning of the Age of Reagan, may have a hallowed place in the hearts of our persecuted Christians. I'm really not trying to sound snarky like the Lee Strobel character here. I see the problem—it's another one of those Chinese finger-puzzlers besetting the country in general, in which the harder one side attempts to convince the other, the more the other resists. Lee Strobel is not sympathetic in this movie. He loses even me at times with his moronic arrogance, and I know I'm basically on his side. By which, to be clear, I do not mean I am in favor of persecuting Christians. For better or worse, Christian ideas, such as about abortion, often define our most sensitive fault lines as a society. I thought there were good things about this movie. It's a pretty good portrait of a 30something couple just starting a family. The glow of the honeymoon is still on them. This could be their first real crisis and it feels authentic. We're not talking sophisticated drama, but it's at least as good as most Lifetime movies or even an Anne Tyler novel, which I count in its favor. There are bona fide stars on hand too (if past their use-by dates), like Faye Dunaway and Robert Forster, along with lots of hey-I-know-it faces, like Rose from Lost as the gentle Alfie or Commissioner Burrell from The Wire as a gritty city editor. The Case for Christ is also racist, I'm sorry to say, but at least trying not to be, sort of like when Donald Trump coos to African Americans about "the inner cities" and not having anything to lose. But the heart of this movie is in a decent place, even on race. It did not win me over—I did not expect it to. But they're getting better at making these things more entertaining. So God bless them. It was the most interesting new movie I've seen in a few weeks.

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