I like Ergun Caner. I can say I love him as a Christian brother, even though I've never met him. I consider him a Christian, and believe he can be used by God to do great things. He is young, and has several decades left to be used by God for great things.
But, sadly, no one to this point has given a clear or compelling defense of Ergun Caner.
Not his best friends, not his coauthors, not those who helped vault him to national prominence. The elder statesmen like Vines and Patterson who promoted Caner after 9/11 to some degree I believe have failed Caner in not doing their due diligence on his true background. How hard would it have been back then to talk to his previous churches, or to grill Caner on the truthfulness of his testimony? I hope they did not encourage the embellishments, or that they chose to look the other way if they were presented with evidence early on. Those who have promoted his story as an ex-Jihadist, they are all strangely silent now, and have taken his tapes off their website. Even his brother, Emir Caner is silent up to this point. And his vocal supporters in the blogosphere still have not given a coherent defense of Ergun Caner, only attacks of Caner's critics and half-baked attempts to ignore and explain away the obvious lies and contradictions documented on the Internet.
But I'm going to offer up a defense of Caner. Funny how it takes a "recalcitrant" blogger who has been critical of Caner over his embellishments to be the one to actually attempt to offer up a valid defense. Caner's supporters have been so infatuated and "obsessed" with destroying his critics - which is no surprise really, it is a typical SBC defense tactic - that none of them have offered up a legitimate defense for their friend!
Yet there is a defense to be made. So I will attempt to articulate it here. I will say up front that I don't completely buy into this defense yet, but I'm trying to articulate it so that perhaps some of his critics (myself included) can think more deeply about the value of Caner to evangelical Christianity and how he can salvage his most important ministry - that to students at Liberty University.
Up to this point, the "supporters" of Caner have attempted to defend him using one of about 5 different tactics:
1. Saying he is basically a good man, who has done good for the gospel and is being unfairly "attacked" - one pastor even just saying basically he "likes" Caner and knows his brother, and therefore doesn't believe the allegations; or
2. Ad hominem attacks on bloggers who dared to point out the Caner deceptions - Dr. James White is wrongly accused of going after Caner because of their feud over reformed theology. Debbie Kaufman has been belittled and ridiculed by Caner supporters, as has her pastor Wade Burleson. And the most sickening attempt of all, to accuse people who point out the Caner deceptions as siding with Muslims in trying to destroy Christianity;
3. Trying to shift the issue from lies about his upbringing and his debates, to whether or not Caner was actually a Muslim (which I and most others believe he was raised to some degree in the Muslim faith); or
4. Saying Caner has already apologized, pointing to his pseudo-apology published at the SBC Today Bunch site in which he says he "never intentionally misled anyone", and his pseudo-apology to the students at "Campus Church" in February 2010; or
5. Saying nothing, stonewalling, until of course "real" media outlets start bringing pressure to bear on Liberty University. How strange that prominent SBC leaders (Vines, Brunson, Floyd, Merrit, and others) who were the biggest Caner promoters 5 years ago, are now strangely quiet).
But these are not valid defenses. None of these deal with admission of wrong-doing, apologizing and repenting of the lies, and thus I would say none of them is even a Christian response to the serious allegations against Caner. Neither do these tactics highlight the very real positive ministry Caner has at Liberty! Tactic #2 has been downright ugly and sinister, and serves to point out other serious issues we have in the SBC with some of our so-called pastors who can't stand valid criticism of their celebrity preachers and attack other Christians in the name of Jesus.
Over the past 3 months I have listened to no less than 20 of Caner's "circuit sermons" in which his embellishments occur - the first one being the November 20, 2001 sermon at my former church FBC Jax, and all the way through 2009. But I've also listened to samples of his Liberty "Campus Church" sermons which he delivers on a regular basis to the Liberty students in a weekly service held just for them. These are available on iTunes, archived all the way back to 2006.
After listening to some of Caner's Campus Church sermons, a couple of things are very apparent:
- he has a very powerful ministry to the youth at Liberty and elsewhere. He is a very clear, captivating speaker, he preaches the Word to the students at Liberty and elsewhere and is not afraid to deal with very sensitive issues that 99.9% of the SBC pastors would never dream of addressing - and he does it all in a scriptural context. I admire him very much for doing this;
- the guy is genuinely funny and appropriately irreverent at times, and I can see why young Christians at LU and elsewhere in Lynchburg would be drawn to the Campus Church ministry;
- he is not a "purpose driven" or "seeker friendly" kind of preacher. He really does deliver the Word of God to students using Caner's own unique style that appeals to young Christians. The students seem to love his frankness and his distaste for political correctness;
- in his Campus Church ministry he does reach out to the "outcasts" of society with the gospel, more so than probably 99% of conservative Baptist churches. He does share parts of his life in his sermons that DO seem to be based on truth and are not embellishments - stories about his grandmother, his friends in Ohio, life as a teenager, being born in Sweden, etc. He has embellished at times in "Campus Church", but not like he does on the "preaching circuit".
- he doesn't engage so much in the racial stereotypes at "Campus Church"- at least the sermons I've heard - probably because he has a very diverse group of Christians and non-Christians who might boo him off the stage if he did that sort of thing. As I've said before - the crowds on the preacher circuit guffawing over his racial stereotypes says more about THEM than it does about Caner;
And I could go on. I would say that I am impressed with this man as a preacher to the youth at Liberty. I do have some issues with some of what he has said (like his embarrassing defense of Ed Young in February 2010 and his pseudo-apology to the students that same month) in the Campus Church sermons, but overall I am impressed with him as a bible preacher.
My thesis: there seems to be two Ergun Caners. There is the "preaching-circuit Ergun", who at times embellishes his credentials in a huge way. And there is a "Campus Ergun". Ergun needs to admit that he has created this "preaching-circuit Ergun", explain how and why he came to be starting in 2001, then repent, and put this other Ergun away for good.
First, the "preaching circuit" Ergun: this Ergun is a performer. We now know he had an interest in theatre in high school, and may have been an actor in several plays, and perhaps some of this comes out on the "preacher circuit" in front of crowds. "Preacher Circuit" Ergun is a stand-up comedian. He is a master story teller and yarn spinner. He speaks without notes, and gets caught up in the emotion of the crowd, and loves to work the crowd like any good performer. But he then begins to embellish stories about himself.
He is a Jeff Foxworthy of sorts, a likeable, self-deprecating stand up comedian, a hired performer who comes in and gives the same routine (sermon), or small variations of the same routine fitted to his audience. I'm in no way defending this, or minimizing the seriousness of the lies he has told over and over again. Over the years he has told his embellishments so many times, that he probably views them as harmless "preacher speak" designed to captivate his audience to focus on his gospel message (I'm trying to be generous here). He might even over the years begun to believe some of the stories.
What are his motives? I don't know - it could be him wanting to build his "terrorist" and "Muslim expert" brand to help him sell books, or it could be that he just loves to feel the love and cheers of the crowd. Probably a little of both. No doubt, he views them as harmless (which they are not), and he probably figured no one would bother listening to these sermons or checking out his background. Certainly in 2001 when he first started spinning his yarns there were not Internet archives of sermons. He didn't envision the day that he would be held accountable by Internet bloggers who would put the pieces together.
The "Campus Ergun" is someone different: he is less of a performer. He seems to genuinely care for his students who will be the next generation of Christian leaders - his students seem to be his passion. He has admitted numerous times on the preaching circuit that he was a "lousy pastor" and that his true calling is with students at Liberty. I believe him.
I assume he respects his students enough that he won't tell outright lies to them about his past (although I did hear him refer in one of his sermons that he knows what it is to live under fascism). He has a fellow preacher (Johnnie Moore) that preaches at Campus Church with him that he undoubtedly is accountable to. He seems to be more restrained in his stories, perhaps because he is with people that know him and his past more intimately.
What Must Caner Do?
The "Campus Ergun" needs to repent of the sin of creating this "Preaching-Circuit" Egun, and put this Ergun away for good. If he does this, Campus Ergun, what I hope is the REAL Ergun, can continue to teach and minister to students at Liberty. We Baptists should WANT HIM to salvage this ministry at Liberty that he has!
Its so easy. He needs to come clean right now, before the TV news national media, and Jay Leno and the late night comedians get a hold of it. He needs to acknowledge to his students, and to the world, what he has done over the past 9 1/2 years on the preaching circuit. It is not just "misspeaking". He purposely has misled people about his past for 9 1/2 years - I say purposely because it is repeated over and over again. He needs to ask forgiveness of his students, and of the many churches at which he has embellished his stories. If he has gained financially from these speeches, he might want to make restitution in some manner. If he continues to preach around the world, over time he can visit churches again, and apologize to them in person for his embellishments. And he will get a standing ovation and people will forgive him. I know they will.
If he has embellished his past and his credentials as an apologist to his students in Campus Church, he needs to admit this and ask their forgiveness.
If he has misrepresented Muslims in some way - and I think his embellishments have served to do this - he can ask forgiveness of Muslims everywhere, and this can serve to help him reach out to them in genuine Christian love. This entire debacle has harmed our ability as evangelicals to witness our faith to practicing Muslims. He should specifically ask for forgiveness from Mohammad Khan, for the terrible things said about him by Caner's defenders, and Caner should acknowledge how wrong it was for his defenders to try to smear Khan and make HIM the issue, rather than Caner's deception.
What a powerful statement it would be for him to stand in front of his students to admit his deceit when on the preaching circuit, to repent of it. I am 100% confident they will forgive him, and cheer him. And I think he can use this experience to continue to minister. He has a self-deprecating style anyways, and his repentance and restoration would fit right in with that shtick.
Caner's Future at Liberty?
I don't see how at this point he can stay as president of the Liberty seminary even if he truly repents, if for no other reason than for the academic credibility of the university. But if he truly repents for the decade of deceit as the "Preaching-Circuit Ergun" and seeks forgiveness, my hope is that he will stay as a professor at Liberty, and even as a preacher at the Campus Church, and continue his ministry to students.
So that is my hope for Ergun. I will pray for him, that he will do the right thing.
I have no evidence to suggest he will repent - all evidence I have is that celebrity preacher's affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention never publicly apologizing for anything, so I have my doubts. All I see from SBC celebrity preachers is stonewalling, silence, and attacks against their critics and even their families.
But still, I think Ergun will genuinely repent. Afterall, he is unique, and he breaks the mold in so many ways as a gospel preacher, which is why I think so many people love him.
Let's pray that Ergun breaks another mold, and shows the Southern Baptist Convention how a Southern Baptist preacher can genuinely repent and be restored. Then perhaps we lay people can show that Southern Baptists are loving, forgiving people, as we forgive Ergun and he is allowed to continue his important ministry at Liberty.
That is my defense of Ergun Caner. Let us all pray that repentence and restoration will come about - for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of the Southern Baptist Convention, and for the students at Liberty University.