“The only way to truth is through facts. Facts are our greatest weapon against superstition, against ignorance and against tyranny.”
Ah, if only the real Lee Strobel would take seriously these words from the fake Lee Strobel. He might have written a more compelling book and ensured that the resulting movie faithfully followed his life story.
The quote referenced above comes from the Strobel character in the 2017 film “The Case for Christ.” He imparts this wisdom to his newsroom colleagues at the Chicago Tribune in 1980.
The movie is loosely based on Strobel’s 1998 book of the same title. It purports to chronicle his nearly two-year investigation into the claims of Christianity after his wife converted, which led to his road from atheism to religious belief in 1981.
Strobel worked as the metro editor at the Daily Herald in his hometown of Arlington Heights, Ill., and as the legal editor at the Chicago Tribune. He left journalism in 1987 to become a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, a northwest suburb of Chicago.
He joined the staff of Saddleback Valley Community Church in California in 2000; the church was founded by the Rev. Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose Driven Life.” Strobel has been a teaching pastor at Woodlands Church in Texas since 2014.
Since its publication, “The Case for Christ” has turned Strobel into a high-profile Christian apologist. It features interviews he conducted with 13 biblical scholars on the authenticity of the books of the New Testament.
Billed as “A journalist’s personal investigation of the evidence for Jesus,” the book has drawn an overwhelmingly positive response from the faithful. I don’t know too many Christians who aren’t at least familiar with it.
This claim has irritated me since reading the book. It’s obvious that the interactions he had with these scholars did not occur when he was a journalist. In fact, he points out in the book and in subsequent interviews that they were done in the late 1990s.
And by that time, Strobel had been a convert to evangelical Christianity for about 15 years and a teaching pastor for about 10 years. So the approach taken for the book was that of a Christian apologist shoring up what he already believes about the inerrancy of the Bible.
The book’s promotion touts it as the product of a skeptical journalist seeking to debunk religious myths. Strobel, however, separates the investigation he did as a journalist in the early 1980s and the research he did for the book.
In the introduction, he writes that his interviews with the Christian scholars were his attempt to “retrace and expand upon the spiritual journey I took for nearly two years.” At points throughout “The Case for Christ,” he makes it clear that these interviews were done just prior to the book’s publication in 1998.
In the book’s conclusion, Strobel documents the moment he became a Christian on Nov. 8, 1981. He writes: “My investigation into Jesus was similar to what you’ve just read, except that I primarily studied books and other historical research instead of personally interacting with scholars.”
So we know virtually nothing about how Strobel actually conducted the investigation that led him to the Christian faith. The interviews in the book were not carried out by an investigative reporter as the book suggests.
But many Christians believe they were, and those behind the book promote this misperception. In fact, several of Strobel’s follow-up books use the term “journalist” when describing how he researched their content.
And the movie includes scenes that can be classified as downright fraud. Here are some examples:
n Strobel writes an article that coerced a man into confessing to a crime he didn’t commit; the Tribune eventually has to retract this information. This implies he exerted great influence over this case. Not true. He has nothing in his book about this, and I didn’t find anything in the Tribune’s archives about such a story.
n Strobel and his wife, Leslie, meet a woman who saves their daughter’s life and says Jesus told her to eat at that restaurant rather than another place. This “miracle” has a profound effect on Leslie, who wants to explore this woman’s faith further. Not true. The Strobels met the woman portrayed in the film after they moved into a condominium complex. She and Leslie became close friends, and over time the neighbor persuaded Leslie to attend church with her.
n Strobel discovers evidence that the man he helped put in prison was framed by police. He set the guy up, and now he’ll get him out. Not true. Prosecutors received information about the “pen gun” that shot a police officer at the time of the defendant’s sentencing; he was released a few days later due to time served.
n Strobel’s editor rejects his offer to write a first-person account of his journey to Christian faith. He tells his wife that his idea was turned down, so she suggests he write a book — which he starts to do immediately, once again connecting the book with his experience as a journalist. Not true. As a teaching pastor, Strobel got the idea to write “The Case for Christ” after creating a courtroom-setting presentation on the reliability of the New Testament. A few months later, Leslie suggested he turn this project into a book.
Yes, films take great license when dealing with real stories. Many times, this involves compressing the timeline of events and creating composite characters.
But given that Strobel worked closely with those creating the movie (he was an executive producer), I would have expected more rigid adherence to reality. As a journalist, he said he was committed to sticking to the facts. And as a Christian, he claims that he wants to present the truth.
So fabricating crucial parts of Strobel’s life on film betrays both goals because it distorts people’s views of him. For me, this raises serious questions about his integrity in chronicling his path to religious faith.
To be continued: As we approach the end of Lent, this column is one of several I’m writing to explore the value of Strobel’s book “The Case for Christ” and its impact on Christianity. Next time, I’ll delve into the weak points of his research.
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to email@example.com.