Years ago, (it feels like another lifetime), before I had children, I had the opportunity to sit down with Lee Strobel and talk with him about writing. He has amazing stories to tell….
Are you familiar with Lee? He is the former award-winning legal editor of the Chicago Tribune and bestselling author of more than 20 books. For the last 25 years, he has shared the evidence that supports the truth and claims of Christianity, equipping believers to share their faith with the people they know and love.
The Case for Christ
His classic book, The Case for Christ, details his journey to Christianity. In case you didn’t hear, a new movie based upon the book was just released. It features stars like Mike Vogel, Erika Christensen, and Faye Dunaway.
It’s an ideal Easter-season movie for anyone who has ever pondered the existence of God … and what role He could play in their lives.
In every interaction I’ve had with Lee, I found him to be humble, thoughtful, and kind. He is an inspiration to budding and veteran writers alike.
(The following “vintage” interview was first published in The Christian Communicator back in 1995.)
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QUESTION: When did you decide to become a writer?
LEE: I used to write books in kindergarten, sixteen-page short stories. My best friend drew the art work. I wanted to be a writer, but mostly I wanted to be a journalist.
In the mornings as a little kid, I read the Tribune, and every night my dad brought home the Chicago Daily News. I was fascinated by the idea of being where the action is and writing about it-sort of having a front row seat to history.
Since I knew from a young age what I wanted to do, that gave me an advantage. I started selling freelance magazine articles when I was 14.
I was rejected by every major magazine in America, but I also got accepted.
I sold probably six-eight articles to small magazines. In high school, I did a column three times a week in two local papers. By getting a lot of clips, I was able to go on to the next job so that by the time I graduated from college the guys at the Chicago Tribune said I had more experience than anybody they’d ever seen coming out of college.
Q: What are some trials you covered as the Chicago Tribune’s Legal Affairs Editor?
LEE: One of the most fascinating cases resulted in the book Fatal Vision (later made into a made-for-TV movie). Jeffrey McDonald, the emergency physician on an east coast Marine base, was on trial for murdering his wife and three young children.
I remember having lunch with McDonald the day before he was convicted and asking him why he was so calm. He said, “Because they’ll never convict me.” They convicted him the next day.
I also covered the Creationism case in Little Rock, Arkansas, challenging the law passed to allow the teaching of Creationism in public schools … the Black Panthers case in Chicago where the police raid resulted in the deaths of Fred Hampton and key Black Panthers leaders … but the big one for me was the Ford Pinto trial in Indiana.
In the middle of the trial, I got a call from a book publisher asking, “Would you do an instant book on the trial?”
This was the first time in American history that a corporation had been charged with a crime-reckless homicide–for the way it built a product. I said, “Well, I’ve never written a book before… but I’ll give it a try.” l had done a lot of investigative work on the Ford Pinto issue.
When the trial ended, the publishers locked me in a hotel room, and I wrote this 286-page book in two-and-a-half weeks. I sometimes worked 20 hours a day.
It was a nightmare.
I wrote without an outline (journalists used to shame you if you’d do an outline), so when I thought a chapter was ending at a good place, I’d end it and start the next one. It was pretty wild.
This was before computers, so I worked on an IBM Selectric. The last day, I noticed something on the typewriter keys. I took a Kleenex and I wiped at it. It was blood.
I had been typing so much that my fingers were bleeding!
When the book came out, some law schools adopted it as a supplementary reading text in evidence classes.
I was so unsure that I could write a book — especially a fast book — I refused to sign a contract. When I delivered the last chapter they said, “You know, we don’t have a contract.”
So we wrote the contract on a napkin and signed it … which was fine until Warner Brothers wanted to buy the movie rights and asked for a copy of our contract. I had to photocopy the napkin and send it to them!
Wise Words for Christian Writers
Q: When did you make the transition from journalist to pastor?
LEE: I became a Christian in 1981 and didn’t go into ministry until late 1987. I believe it’s important to have some Christian representation in the secular newsroom-so it was my intent to stay in journalism, and I did for several years.
Yet, I felt a calling into ministry. I wanted to be able to use the best hours of the day to express my spiritual gift of evangelism.
Q: What do you think is most important for Christian writers to remember?
LEE: What is your mission? Keep your mission in mind. It’s easy to lose sight of the purpose that God has called us to. Focus what you do in furtherance of whatever mission God has put into your life.
Q: Are there any “words of wisdom” you can share with beginning writers?
LEE: As much as writing for Christians is dependent upon God, we still need to hone our skills to the point where God can use them most effectively.
Writing is a gift that He has given us, and we’ll be held accountable for the way that we develop and use it. I urge young Christian writers to do the hard work of learning the basics of writing and editing, realizing that it’s God in the end who’s going to accomplish something through us.
Teach (Don’t Preach)
Also, there’s a very natural tendency to want to use art to preach. People don’t want to be preached at-they want to be taught by examples, illustrations, and stories.
l think our ministry is amplified when we gently teach as opposed to harshly preach. We need to maintain a high compassion quotient in our writing.
Keep in mind as you interact with people (subjects of articles who may not be Christians)— you are an ambassador of Christ.
In the end, how you interact with them could be more important than what you write about them.
Q: How do you balance the demands of a ministry to people with the demands of solitude needed for writing?
LEE: l intentionally carve out blocks of time in my schedule where I plan to write. It’s amazing what you can do in two hours if you really set your mind to it. Two hours is gone in no time, but you’ve got something to show for it.
When God Hits It Out of the Park
Q: What do you most value about your writing gift?
LEE: The satisfaction you get when you feel like God has really activated the gift. When you finish writing and say, “I didn’t have that in me.“ And you thank God for the fact that writing’s not just a talent — it’s a gift.
I use the analogy of playing baseball: you hit a pop fly that should have been caught for the third out, but as the ball is soaring… the wind blows it out of the park. As you stand and watch it, you realize that you didn’t hit it that hard, but the Holy Spirit did something with it that exceeded your expectations and abilities. That’s exhilarating!
It’s fun to watch that happen and to hear stories about people who are impacted. I get letters from around the country from people who say, “I read your book, and what a difference it has made to my ministry.”
That’s incredibly meaningful.