Why Lee Strobel is Wrong (An Introduction of Sorts, Part II)
In 1998, Lee Strobel released a book that had a strong influence on my life. The Case for Christ would become a major hit, selling over ten million copies and producing a wide array of sequels, spin-offs, and merchandise. As far as I can tell, the book is still immensely popular and is still given as a gift from well-intentioned believers to their surely befuddled non-believing friends and family. The movie version of the book opens next week on April 7th (check out the trailer for some classic All the President’s Men style newsroom suspense). I’ve read the book a couple of times. For a while, it was one of my all-time favorite books. My late teens and early twenties were spent quoting this book almost as much as I quoted Monty Python. But since this blog post isn’t really about Lee Strobel or The Case for Christ I am just going to go ahead and tell you now: this book is total garbage and it is not at all worth your time, regardless of your current spiritual inclination.
For those of you who had the great misfortune to not be raised in an Evangelical Christian home, let me briefly sum up the book. The Case for Christ is ostensibly the “retraced and expanded” journey that Strobel made from tough-minded and skeptical Atheist to fully convinced believer. As a journalist for the Chicago Tribune, Strobel was a fierce defender of getting the facts straight and reporting the whole story without bias. The newsroom where he worked had a sign that read “If your mother says she loves you, get a second opinion.” Thus, when he tells us in the introduction to his book that his wife’s conversion to faith spurred him to launch “an all-out investigation into the facts surrounding the case for Christianity” we have reason to believe he is going to be unbiased. He tells us that he set aside his self-interest and prejudice and “read books, interviewed experts, asked questions, analyzed history, explored archaeology, studied ancient literature, and for the first time in my life picked apart the Bible verse by verse.” Sounds like an intriguing study, doesn’t it? Surely if an Atheistic journalist who is committed to fact-finding scours through the evidence for God and comes out as a believer, there must be something to this whole Christianity thing, right?
Here’s the thing though: the only experts that Strobel interviews in his entire book are fully-committed Christians. The scholarship he cites favors his conclusion, but on review actually goes against the consensus of most religious scholars and historians. The objections to the claims of Christianity are such straw men that they border on the absurd. This was an open-minded and fair investigation in the same way that oil companies are fair and open-minded when they investigate global warming. That is to say, it isn’t an inquiry into Truth as much as it is a biased defense of a particular position. We won’t presently get into the specific problems with his argument here (in part because others have already done a very good job of it), but also because I am trying to get to a bigger point.
In later interviews when pressed as to why he didn’t interview any non-believing scholars for his investigation, Strobel says he “digested the writings of skeptical scholars. Then I confronted Christian experts with what I considered to be the skeptics’ most potent objections—which also were the ones I personally wrestled with—to see if they could offer cogent and convincing answers.” And I believe that is probably the case. Strobel probably really did think he was doing a good job of playing the skeptic. The problem of course was that at the time of publication, Strobel had been a Bible believing Christian for almost twenty years. Memory is tricky, and faith is trickier. Perhaps Strobel had forgotten the real questions and pressing issues that real non-believers have. Perhaps he (rightfully) realized that a simple defense of the faith would not sell as well as a harrowing tale of an Atheist finally being honest with himself enough to realize that the evidence had been pointing to Jesus the whole time. Or perhaps Strobel was not really interested in a true investigation at all. At this point, he was already a pastor with a devoutly Christian family. Think about all he could lose if he uncovered something that shattered what he believed?Regardless, the end result is the same. What Strobel presents us with is not an honest struggle. It is the performance of a struggle. It is theatrics. It is insincere.
I am being harsh. My point in bringing up this book is not to bash apologetics or even Reverend Strobel himself. After all, my friend David met him once and told me that he does a “really good impression of Billy Graham ordering a pizza,” so he can’t be all that bad of a guy. No, I bring up this 19 year old book that most of you have probably never heard of because the mistakes that Strobel makes in The Case for Christ are the same mistakes that we all are in danger of making.
My mentor and good friend Bruce frequently says that our problem is that we start with the answers and then work our way through the questions. For Christians, the answer to all of life’s big problems and questions is Jesus. They already know it. It’s on their bumper stickers and t-shirts and coffee mugs and piggy banks. Jesus is the answer. So when presented with life’s “big questions” about morality, sexuality, the afterlife, other religions, etc. they filter those questions through the answer that they already have. If they encounter evidence that contradicts their already chosen answer, or a problem that is not so easily solved, they can just disregard it. Jesus is the answer. If it isn’t, then you are asking the question wrong.
And Christians are by no means the only ones who are guilty of doing this. Atheists and really people of all creeds and ideologies do this too. We know what we believe and so our job now is to defend what we already know is true. The world is chock full of books, blogs, podcasts, and sermons where people try to assert, persuade, and cajole you into their definition of the truth. I had a recent conversation with a friend where she said she enjoys talking about her faith but finds that more often than not the people she converses with are just looking to poke holes in her beliefs.
But what if we are able to forget we know the answers? Or at the very least allow for the small possibility that the answers we are clinging to are incomplete or need to be tweaked in some areas? What if we can just spend some real time with the questions themselves? What if we can make an honest attempt to do what Lee Strobel claims to have done and really explore the evidence available to us? What if we risked the comfort of our beliefs in order to find something greater? In order to find the actual Truth? Wouldn't those conversations about faith contain a lot more meaning? Wouldn't we have incentive to actually listen to the experiences of others? Maybe (and this is me being idealistic) we would stop seeing each others as enemies, and instead rightfully see each other as fellow sojourners. All of us exploring the mysteries of life, all of us with something to offer.
Atheists love to quote the Bible, but they tend to be selective and focus only on the most bigoted, misogynistic, violent parts of the book. Christians love to look at the nihilism and coldness that can happen with Atheism, but usually fail to recognize the morality and unyielding compassion that exists in secular humanism. The truth is, of course, that the Bible is full of both brutality as well as beauty. Atheism can lead to a sense of insignificance and meaningless, yes, but also a more true sense of one’s own worth and motivation for righteous behavior. Islam contains both the call to war and to peace. Buddhism pushes us into nothingness so that we might find true substance. This is all there. It is only when we become willing to look at all of it, every side of every question that we can maybe possibly get to the actual Truth of the world around us.
This is all easy for me to say. I am no Lee Strobel. I don’t have a horse in this race. There is no conclusion that I am hoping to find. I have no position to sell you on. I recognize that a quest like this will be considerably more difficult for those of you that already have assurance in the answers that you’ve chosen. But remember the old adage, “a ship is always safe at shore but that is not what ships are built for.” Whatever answers you have chosen, do you have confidence that they will withstand some turbulent time at sea? Isn’t that worth finding out? Will you come with me? Will you help me uncover some big questions? The investigation is starting now. Let’s see what we find.