Wednesday, April 14, 2010

When Will We Southern Baptists Turn from the Idol of Celebrity to the Gospel Itself?

The official biography of Ergun Caner, President of Liberty University, had been down on his website for some months now. The actual biography of Ergun Caner, with all the embellishments removed, reveals the story of a typical midwestern American youth growing up in a home touched by divorced--albeit a youth with an incredible gift for public speaking. He did not grow up in Turkey, he was not trained as a Muslim terrorist, and he has not debated Muslims around the world as he has claimed. What is very revealing about this situation, more so than the noted changes made on Caner's resume concerning his education, more so than the blind, vocal support by angry ideologues who want the blessing of their heroes, is Liberty's removal of Dr. Caner's biography from the school's website. Personnel from Liberty have informed me that Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr made the decision to pull the biography, have it reworked, and then repost it this week. The Chancellor's decision, however, was up in the air (updated)--until today. A new, cleaned up biography has just been posted. It seems that the pressure on Liberty has been increasing and so has the need to give an official explanation for the discrepancies in the stories told by their Seminary's President. It has become a public issue, one that isn't as easy to ignore as when people were being forced into silence. What can be said of the executive leadership staff of a Baptist seminary and university who refuse to address the integrity issues of her President when the world remembers how a Roman Catholic university responded to similar issues in the coach of their football team? I would urge the board of directors of Liberty, most of whom are Southern Baptists (Jack Graham, Johnny Hunt, Bailey Smith, James Merritt, and Jerry Vines, etc..) to realize the importance of this hour.

The padding of a biography may seem minor, particularly when it provides an exciting and compelling testimonial for the advancement of the gospel. But since when did we Southern Baptists start deeming celebrity more important than truth? Since when did we begin thinking that the gospel itself needs our help to accomplish its goal? If we Southern Baptists don't speak out on the issues that cause us to admire celebrity more than the gospel, then the joke is on us.

To prop up his own reputation Caner once listed the Muslims he's debated. Shabir Ally is one Caner claimed to have debated. Shabir has publicly stated he has no recollection of debating Dr. Caner, much less meeting him. Caner also spoke of debating "Abdul Saleeb". Unfortunately, Dr. Caner, despite his claim that he has been steeped in Islamic thought, was unaware that "Abdul Saleeb" is a pseudonym for an ex-Muslim who converted to Christianity and wishes to remain anonymous. "Abdul Saleeb" actually means in Arabic "servant of the cross.". The name was used by the man who co-authored, along with christian apologist Norman Geisler, a book entitled Answering Islam. There was never a need for Caner to debate and defend Christianity against someone who is already a servant of the cross. One of the problems with padding one's biography with names of Muslims allegedly debated is that in the Information Age, facts have a way of being able to be verified. I received the following email from a person who knows Dr. Caner quite well.

"Just wanted to thank you for addressing the issues with Ergun Caner. We knew the Caner's when I worked for Mac Brunson at First Dallas. Our kids went to their son's birthday parties and we ended up at lunches and meetings with them. I knew Ergun long before I ever heard him preach. The first time I heard him preach publicly was at the Pastor's Conference that we sponsored in Phoenix. I was sitting in the Green Room watching the monitor, and was absolutely shocked. You see, I had no idea he had an accent. He DIDN'T have an accent, except when he was in the pulpit.

I was ... stunned.

I enjoyed having Ergun as a friend, as long as we weren't talking SBC stuff. He did chase the limelight, which ... well, I got that a lot when working for Dr. Brunson. Had to keep chapstick in my desk for all the butt kissing. :) Sad, but pretty rampant.

Again, just wanted to say thanks."
My phone calls and messages to Dr. Caner's have not been returned. I am not anonymous and I leave my cell number. I hope Dr. Caner keeps his job at Liberty; but only if there is brokenness and repentance. It would seem that the best approach is for Caner to come clean with his embellishments, seek the forgiveness of those whom he has led, ask for the grace to continue his ministry, and cease trying to create a persona that is false. I, for one, would honor a man with that kind of humility. Our focus in the SBC needs to return to the gospel. It won't happen till there is repentance over how far we have left the good news in order to create a cult of personality.

In His Grace,

Wade Burleson