CT takes a similar approach to the Caner story.
Since this post appeared, Caner has been removed from his position as Dean but remains a faculty member at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary.
Original Post 30 May 2010
Ergun Caner, President of Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and Graduate School is in trouble for exaggerating or possibly fabricating his biography and conversion from Islam to evangelical Christianity. A number of news sources (e.g., the Huffington Post (HT: Lane Chaplin), the LA Times, and CT) are covering a story first uncovered by bloggers who questioned some of Caner’s claims about his background, his knowledge of Islam, and his claims to have debated Muslim scholars. According to news reports Caner is blaming the investigation partly on his “Calvinist” critics. It was not, however, a Calvinist who began to investigate Caner’s claims. It was a Muslim student. I am less interested in the details of Caner’s biography and conversion. For the sake of discussion let’s assume that Caner exaggerated elements of his story, that he embellished aspects of his Muslim childhood and his commitment to Jihad. Why would anyone do such a thing?
For anyone who knows anything about the religious world in which Caner lives, the answer is simple: drama. In the conversionist, revivalist, aisle-walking, just-as-I-am-singing piety in which Caner moves, it is essential to have a good, colorful, compelling conversion story. The essence of both drama and comedy is tension. In comedy the tension is created and resolved in an unexpected and delightful way. In drama the tension is created and resolved in a compelling, affective way, i.e., in a way that moves the emotions to sadness or pity. The greater the contrast between “before” and “after,” the greater the tension and the more powerful the resolution.
In revivalist-conversionist circles, there is a great, unspoken pressure to heighten the tension by exaggerating one’s pre-conversion biography. In truth few of us have dramatic conversion stories. Certainly they exist but most of our pre-Christian lives are quite mundane. Sure, our families and lives were full of the dysfunction that sin brings, but most sins are hidden from public and have relatively little entertainment value. It is, however, a lot easier to get a crowd worked up and sweaty and ready to walk the aisle during the invitation if the testimony includes some juicy details. Hence the embellishment.
I don’t remember what I said the first time I gave my “testimony” in church. I do remember, however, the intoxicating feeling I had from being in front of 300 people eager to hear a good story. I remember the approval I received from the pastors and from others. It was a powerful inducement to make smaller details larger than they really were. The first time I actually remember trying to find a dramatic episode to use for evangelism was not, however, in an Arminian SBC. It was during my training in Evangelism Explosion. I was a pastor in a small, struggling Reformed church. As part of the EE program one is supposed to tell a dramatic story. The really dramatic stories I could have told would have been violations of confidences and unfair to those involved and not relevant to my conversion. So I told a story about losing control of my car on the ice. I told that story on door steps and on cassette tapes distributed to hundreds of people. In truth losing control of the car happened so quickly and ended so well that it wasn’t frightening as much as it was amusing. The car just made lazy circles on the icy road until momentum carried it slowly and gently into a snow bank. Walking in sub-zero temperatures to my destination was more frightening but even that ended well as a passerby picked me up and dropped me off. There was nothing to see. Move along.
I embellished the story because the genre and program demanded it. If I didn’t have a story I couldn’t do the program and if I couldn’t do the program then I couldn’t do evangelism, at least not successfully. The tragedy of the entire Finneyite, aisle-walking, sinner’s prayer-praying model is that it’s about the wrong story completely. The truth is that we have a wonderfully dramatic story to tell. The tension is not between my pre- and post-conversion lives but between human sin and divine grace, between the mystery of the fall into sin and death, and the greater mystery of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ for sinners.
The moral of the Caner saga is not one of Calvinist (or even Muslim) conspiracies but one of the subtle pressure to conform to a religious culture, a piety, and expectations created by the conversionist paradigm. The dramatic story we Christians have to tell, however, isn’t, in the first instance, about us at all. In the first instance, the story we have to tell is about God the Son incarnate, about his obedience for us, and his mercy to us. The subject of our story is not “we” or “I” but “He,” that is, the God who saved us in Christ. Yes, we are, by grace alone, through faith alone, now a part of that story. Jesus is our federal head. He acted for us and now that he has made us alive (sola gratia) by his Spirit, who operates through the preaching of gospel narrative, and has by faith alone (sola fide) united us to Christ by his Spirit, that story is our story.
That’s the only story we really have to tell. What we did or didn’t do before we came to faith, if we can even remember such a time, is inconsequential. Praise God many covenant children never remember when they did not believe. They feel no need to embellish their personal stories because they don’t live in an ecclesiastical culture where that sort of narrative is highly valued. Here is a concrete, practical difference between Reformed piety and conversionist, revivalist piety. The focus of Reformed piety is on the Gospel, and the Gospel tells me that what matters most of all is not what has happened in me but what happened for me, outside of me, in salvation history. What matters most is that I believe it now. Yes, that salvation history has powerful consequences for my personal narrative but that story is unfinished. The Gospel, however, is the story of a done deal: “It is finished.”