A conversation about the new movie and the popular TV series about living the Christian life
God had plans for Lee Strobel, plans that Strobel himself couldn’t comprehend or even conceive of at the time since he was an avowed atheist. But in 1980, Strobel, then the legal editor at the Chicago Tribune, set out on an investigation to disprove Christianity. Instead, he wound up converting to the Christian faith. He shared his story in the best-selling book The Case for Christ, and it’s now being told in a new way in a feature film with the same title, which opens Friday, April 7.
Recently on “Christopher Closeup” I interviewed Brian Bird, the screenwriter of The Case for Christ and creator/executive producer of the Christopher Award-winning Hallmark Channel series When Calls the Heart. Bird explained that Strobel’s problem started when his wife Leslie became a Christian, a religion he likened to “a cult.” It led to deep conflict in their marriage.
Listen to the podcast of the interview here…
Bird said of his movie, “The Case for Christ is as much an investigation of Christianity as it is a love story between Lee and Leslie. He deeply loved his wife and didn’t want to lose his marriage. But he felt like this newfound faith that Leslie had undertaken was like an affair. He literally said to her, ‘You have another man. His name is Jesus.’”
Strobel’s antagonism toward Christianity stemmed from his own background, which is explored in the movie. Bird said, “Lee had a deeply painful relationship with his own father. He discovered along the way that all of the most famous atheists in history had a huge father wound… [They] either had fathers who were abusive, or who died prematurely when they were young, or who were cold to them. So he discovered that his bias was rooted in his own upbringing as much as it was in his own skepticism.”
It says a lot about Strobel’s ethics and commitment to truth that he was able to go against his bias and follow the facts where they led. He interviewed many Bible scholars who convinced him that the gospels are reliable pieces of history that affirm the theological view of Jesus as the Messiah. And instead of seeing Jesus as a rival to his marriage, he came to view Him as a partner on which both he and Leslie could rely. Bird calls this movie “the most meaningful thing that I’ve done in 30 years of doing this work.”
Bird’s Hallmark Channel series When Calls the Heart, which he created with Michael Landon, Jr., is faith-affirming in its own way. Based on the novel by Janette Oke, the series takes place in 1910 and tells the story of Elizabeth Thatcher (Erin Krakow), a wealthy young schoolteacher who moves to a coal mining town called Hope Valley. Bird explains, “She pursues her passion to lift young minds out of their hardship and open them up to the opportunities of the world. In the meantime, she falls in love with a handsome young Royal Canadian Mountie, Jack Thornton (Daniel Lissing).”
Hope Valley itself, says Bird, “is a throwback to the values of yesteryear: the great virtues of hope, faith, love, courage, nobility, redemption, forgiveness, sacrifice, and communities pulling together to help each other in times of need. It’s in the tradition of Michael’s father’s show, Little House on the Prairie, in that family, faith, and community are the most important thing in our lives.”
Millions of viewers are tuning in to When Calls the Heart every Sunday night at 9/8C, and watching the show together as a family because it can be enjoyed by everyone ranging from age eight to 80. In fact, five million people watched the series’ Christmas movie on Christmas night. That is largely thanks to a grassroots group of fans called the #Hearties, an online community who started talking about and promoting the show. Bird has the utmost respect for what they’ve accomplished and credits them with keeping the show around for its current fourth season – and hopefully beyond. He says, “There’s a sense of community happening. There are people praying for one another, and there are friendships being formed.”
One aspect of the show that is especially appealing to fans is its promotion of foster parenting or adopting children, as told through the character Abigail Stanton (Lori Loughlin) adopting an orphan named Cody. The storyline has personal resonance to Bird, whose wife was a foster child for many years when she was young. And the couple has two adoptive daughters in their family.
Bird explained: “Lori Loughlin and I were having a conversation. She just out of the blue said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if Abigail could adopt a child in season two?’ We took that idea and began to spin on that. In my own experience, I believe that adoption is in the DNA of the universe. As people of faith, we’re all adopted by God. So adoption is important to God, I believe. I also believe that love is thicker than blood in that context. When I spoke to Lori about that theological underpinning of adoption and my own experience, it was just a beautiful connecting point. Hallmark Channel loved the idea, so we have loved that relationship between Abigail and Cody, her young adopted son.”
On the opposite spectrum of good-hearted Abigail is the character of Henry Gowen (Martin Cummins), the town’s resident villain. Sometimes it seems like he might be on a redemptive track, but then he seems to reverse course – or at least leave viewers unsure of his character. Bird revealed that’s all on purpose.
He said, “I have always believed in my work as a storyteller that every villain was somebody’s baby once. They’re not cartoons, they’re not twisting their mustache for no reason, when they are being villainous. There is nature and nurture involved. So for Henry Gowen, we always hold out hope that he will see the light of day, and there have been glimpses of that humanity. I have always believed that every villain needs to have a piece of the truth somewhere. So Henry speaks truth sometimes. Every story needs an antithesis to the thesis. If the thesis of When Calls the Heart is the great virtues, then you need the antithesis of that represented so that you can get to a synthesis, an integration of those things. So if Henry has a redemption story, then ultimately we’ve got to find somebody else to carry those bags, right? In season four, there is somebody else who starts to step up to do that. Without giving too many spoilers away, we totally see the power of the potential of redemption, but also the potential of our dark side pulling us back.”
When Calls the Heart may not be making a “Case for Christ” exactly like Lee Strobel does, but it beautifully captures the heart of what it means to live the Christian values we believe in. For that, viewers can be grateful to Brian Bird for allowing God to guide his head and his heart in the right direction.