As a rule, GetReligion doesn't pay attention to editorials, commentaries and reviews for the simple reason that our purpose is to focus on the good and bad in mainstream religion news coverage, with a strong emphasis on the word "news."
Besides, it's hard to critique matters of accuracy, bias and balance in forms of writing in which authors are free to speak their minds, as columnists or commentators.
However, even it comes to writing about movies -- whether we are talking about news or commentary -- The Los Angeles Times is not just another newspaper. It matters what kinds of labels the La La land newspaper of record pins on real people who work in the public square.
So here is the top of the Noel Murray review of the new movie "The Case for Christ," which is based on the journey that former Chicago Tribune legal-affairs reporter Lee Strobel made from atheism to Christian faith. The headline on the review: " 'The Case for Christ' prioritizes drama over evidence."
Lee Strobel became a fundamentalist Christian hero thanks to his 1998 book “The Case for Christ,” chronicling how his dogged research into Jesus’ resurrection helped convert him from atheism. Director Jon Gunn and screenwriter Brian Bird’s film version emphasizes Stobel’s personal drama over his academic investigation, which makes for a watchable movie but thin theology.
Mike Vogel plays Strobel, who at the start of the 1980s was an award-winning Chicago journalist with a happy marriage and a bright future, until his wife, Leslie (played by Erika Christensen), found God. Anxious to get their life back to the way things were, he started interviewing scholars in various disciplines, hoping that by presenting Leslie with the facts, she’d back down.
Veteran GetReligion readers will not be surprised that it was the word "fundamentalist" that caught my attention, after clicking on a URL sent in by a reader on the West Coast.
There are two ways to read the "fundamentalist" clause in the lede.
Is the reviewer saying that Strobel is himself a convert to fundamentalist Protestantism or that his many works of Christian apologetics have made the former reporter a hero to fundamentalist Protestants (as well as many mainline Protestants, evangelicals, Catholics, etc.)? Maybe the Times copy desk assumed that both readings were logical?
Before we look at Strobel's history, let's glance back at that classic Associated Press Stylebook definition of this journalistic buzzword:
fundamentalist. The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. ... However, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.
"In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself."
The problem, of course, is that reporters -- along with many academics that they quote -- apply this term to all kinds of people in all kinds of contexts. In a 2011 "On Religion" column about this situation I added:
As philosopher Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame once quipped, among academics "fundamentalist" has become a "term of abuse or disapprobation" that most often resembles the casual semi-curse, "sumbitch."
"Still, there is a bit more to the meaning. ... In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views," noted Plantinga, in an Oxford Press publication. "That makes it more like 'stupid sumbitch.' ... Its cognitive content is given by the phrase 'considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.' "
So, is Strobel a "stupid sumbitch" or not?
That's the question raised by the use of this religion-history term in the Los Angeles Times review of "The Case for Christ" movie. If we are talking about journalism, the key issue is whether there is any evidence in the life and career of Strobel that he is a Protestant "fundamentalist," as defined by AP.
A note or two about Strobel, the legal-affairs journalist. He did his undergraduate degree at a top j-school, the University of Missouri, and then went to Yale University to get his law degree. That gives some clues as to his approach to research and writing.
Strobel converted to Christianity in 1981 and, after a few years, went into ministry -- becoming a "teaching pastor" at the world famous Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago suburbs.
Now, WIllow Creek -- led by the Rev. Bill Hybels -- has for decades been known as, literally, a globel hub for the "seeker friendly" school of mainstream (some would say somewhat "progressive") evangelicalism. Hybels, of course, became a major news-media figure in the 1990s through his writings and his role as one of the "spiritual advisors" and private pastors to President Bill Clinton.
Willow Creek is not a fundamentalist church.
From there, Strobel went west and for several years served as a writer in residence and teaching pastor at Saddleback Community Church, founded and led by the Rev. Rick "The Purpose Driven Life" Warren. In addition to writing one of the bestselling books in the history of Planet Earth, Warren has also received quite a bit of news-media attention through his high-profile dialogues with President Barack Obama, both during Obama's first White House campaign and in the years afterwards.
Saddleback is not a fundamentalist church.
Those seeking an update on Strobel's work can turn to this 2015 profile in The Houston Chronicle, which noted that the author had come to town to serve -- again as a "teaching pastor" -- at the giant Woodlands Church. Strobel also joined the faculty of Houston Baptist University as professor of Christian thought and apologetics.
The Chronicle piece, in describing Strobel and his work, noted that The Washington Post once referred to him as "one of the evangelical community's most popular apologists."
So, in conclusion, let me ask this question about the label that The Los Angeles Times pinned on this writer: What is the evidence, drawn from his life and career, that Strobel is a "fundamentalist" Protestant, as opposed to being "one of the evangelical community's most popular apologists"?
Is it possible to publish a correction for a movie review?