I was listening to a recent sermon of a Southern Baptist evangelist, Bill Britt, who was encouraging the students at Truett-McConnell College to “look alive” while he was preaching. In order to spur them on, he told an anecdote that I immediately recognized. He purported, “I was in a revival one time and a guy fell out in the aisle and we thought he died of a heart attack, so we called the paramedics. They dragged twenty people out before they got the right guy. That was a dead church.” Now, if you grew up in SBC circles, you have probably heard this story more times than you care to remember. You might think that the only crime committed here is not buying a new joke book since 1950. However, while I have no problem with the use of humor in preaching, I think if you examine this sort more closely, you will find something far more serious taking place.
Notice he gave no indication that he was telling a fictional story. He tells it as if it were his first-hand experience while preaching a revival. It’s easy to assume that anyone hearing that story would have readily known that he was telling a joke. However, I can testify to people taking stories as authentic that I knew were jokes. How many forwarded emails have you received where you shake your head in disbelief that the sender was duped by what you easily recognized as false? But there is something even more important. Even if it should be readily clear that the story was simply a jovial tale, I believe what this evangelist does – as well as how he does it – normalizes and encourages a culture that enables preachers to make up stories out of whole cloth.
All of this reminded me of a recent conversation I had with one of my Associate Pastors. He showed me a video of a Christian concert where a singer was having an onstage conversation with a Christian comedian. The exchange was intended to be an entertaining interlude between the musical performances. They told the story as if it were an actual event that had happened between the singer and the comedian. Accordingly, one had sent the other an exotic bird as a birthday gift that was mistakenly cooked and eaten. Another familiar joke that I suspect most in the audience readily recognized as being nothing more than a concocted humorous story. But it was then that my fellow pastor made the declaration that this modus operandi, of telling a fabricated story as if it were a real event, is part of the whole culture that makes it easier for guys like Ergun Caner to pull off their more elaborate tales. Here is the concern: is there any place in the pulpit for men of God to exaggerate or personalize stories that have no basis in fact in such a way to communicate that they are factual – even if the motivation is nothing more than a rhetorical mechanism for advancing the Gospel?
It caused me to think back on my own preaching throughout the years. How many times had I heard another pastor tell a story that over time I began to tell it as if it were my own experience? Even more likely, how many times had I told a story that had a large element of truth, but I added to it in order to get a bigger laugh? I must admit that there are few things I find more intoxicating than a crowd that is “eating out of my hand.” And it is so easy to rationalize such behavior! After all, this is for the good of the Gospel! We often believe that helping a crowd relax and feel comfortable is one of the best ways to prepare them to hear the hard things you need to say (e.g. sin, hell, the need for repentance). If the ultimate end is for good, what does it matter if the story is true or not? What does it matter if the details of my story have been embellished in order to get the crowd to laugh louder and harder? If it will build my pathos, I am willing to fully sacrifice my ethos so that the audience might more likely accept my message. But the essence of that type of thinking is this: “I will lie in order to bring this crowd to a point of being able to be saved.” Isn’t it ironic that we employ deceit, a sin for which Christ died, as a means to help prepare people to see their need to confess their sin and come to Christ? Well, maybe “sick” and “twisted” are better descriptions than “ironic.”
If one simply listens to a sampling of the ample audio of Ergun Caner’s sermons from 2001 until 2010, it is absolutely clear that he exaggerated much of his claims and totally fabricated other things. Who can deny, with any amount of integrity, that he could have been born in Istanbul and Sweden? Who can claim, without ignoring reality, that it isn’t a complete fairy tale to say you were trained as a Jihadist to do what had been done to America on 9/11, when in reality you grew up in Ohio from the age of three? Many of us, who see the truth for what it is, scratch our heads in amazement that Ergun Caner has any defenders, let alone so many of them being well-trained and educated men. I, along with others, have concluded that their continued defense of Caner is mainly their unified distaste for Calvinism – since that is the theological view of the one who originally brought Caner’s situation to light, as well as many who have called for his repentance. In other words, they haven’t closely examined the evidence and have turned a blind eye to it all because they have chosen to believe the Calvinistic conspiracy theory. For the majority, that is sadly the case.
But, could it be, that some are defenders of Caner who do so because he is only guilty of doing in excess what they have been doing for years themselves – albeit in a less elaborate scheme? In other words, could it be that they would feel hypocritical to speak out against his lies and call him to repentance because they are guilty of doing in moderation what he has done in excess (I must say that I find it interesting that the Bill Britt is a staunch supporter of Caner). After all, is what Caner did really all that different than the seemingly more mild examples given above? For a moment, give Ergun Caner the benefit of the doubt. What if he came to the conclusion one day that the best way for him to reach the lost, in an age where Islam is on everyone’s radar, was to become a former radical Jihadist Muslim who had been powerfully converted by the Gospel of Jesus Christ? (As crazy as this example sounds, a student at Brewton Parker actually used this as a defense for Caner.)
What if Ergun took the bits and pieces of his life story that were absolutely true – born into a Muslim home, raised by a devout Muslim father, saved out of Islam – and he embellished parts of the story as well as completely inventing other parts so that he could reach people for Christ? For one thing, the story wasn’t out of the realm of possibility; it is plausible that all of it could have happened. In addition, if there was a person exactly like this, Jesus certainly could save such a person. And ultimately, the purpose of this fabricated story is to bring the listeners to be willing to listen to the greatest story ever told – the story that Jesus came to strap a cross to his back so Muslims like Caner wouldn’t have to strap a bomb to theirs (one of my favorite Caner lines that I believe is actually quite powerful). What if Caner was only perfecting the art of fabricated storytelling that many preachers have been practicing for years? And if his story gains the acceptance of the crowd and gets more people to “respond” to the Gospel, why isn’t it just a better mouse trap?
Before you think I am helping create a good defense for Caner’s actions, I find what he has done to be deplorable and utterly wicked. Christ would never call upon us to use lies and deceit as a means of gaining acceptance to the message of the Gospel. And whatever genuine response might come from such a presentation is due to the sheer grace of God as he is able to save anyone in spite of the sinfulness of the messenger. Hallelujah that God can, or no one would ever be saved since all preachers are by nature fallen sinners. But no matter how one might try to paint it, the end does not justify the means.
Sadly, I am afraid, that the monster of Ergun Caner has been facilitated by the “doctors” who have employed using false tales in their pulpits for the purpose of advancing the cause of the Gospel. And I am saddened to look back and acknowledge that at times in my ministry I too have done in moderation what Ergun Caner has done in excess. I would be a hypocrite not to confess it and repent of it. But the answer is not to ignore what Ergun Caner has clearly done. Integrity and honesty are not exclusively traits of the Calvinist, Arminian, or Traditionalist. They are traits of the genuine Christian. It is time that we confess that fabricated or exaggerated stories have no place in the life of the Christian, and definitely no place in Gospel ministry. As we continue to call Ergun Caner and those who continue to employ his tactics to repentance, let us shed the pretenses, confess our sin for what it is, and repent of our lies whether they are seemingly small or great.
[Contributed by Tom Buck]
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