It might seem strange that a minister, a Christian college president, would be a fan of the phony, make-believe world of professional wrestling. I mean I am not sure that I even know of a single person - certainly no Christian minister - who would hop on a plane to go watch the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Wrestlemania event.
Yet here is Ergun Caner, ordained minister, Christian college president, who loves professional wrestling, who posts pictures of himself and his kids hanging out with some of the professional wrestling old-timers like Ted DiBiase and Rick Flair. Caner is and for many years has been fascinated with the wrestlers of WWE. Caner seems to be able to identify with these wrestlers/performers.
This weekend if it finally hit me. Caner's fascination with professional wrestling makes perfect sense. Too much sense. And sadly, as one considers the similarity between Ergun Caner's world of Christianity make-believe he lived for 9 years, it also seems so clear that modern evangelicalism is beginning to resemble the world of professional wrestling - and its fans are as gullible as the WWE fans who go and pay to watch their favorite wrestling star.
Let's first take Ergun Caner. As most civilized, educated people know, professional wrestling is a staged, choreographed "sport". Fans pay to watch larger than life wrestlers - who have taken on fake personas and stage names - act out their profession according to a wrestling script in front of cheering, adoring fans who eat it all up. Fans actually PAY to watch these men with fake names and fake stories pretend to wrestle and fight each other. They marvel at their antics, laugh at the jokes, and cheer the wrestling moves. But it is all fake.
So OF COURSE Ergun Caner can relate to these wrestlers - he lived out the same life as these wrestlers: a fake story line - lived in front of adoring fans who paid to watch his antics, laugh at the same choreographed punch lines and stories and jokes. He delivered the same show week in and week out, pretending to be a former Jihadist. And his fans loved it.
Ergun Caner was the professional Christian equivalent to Hulk Hogan of the professional wrestling world. Only Caner was better - he actually had his fans believing that his story was true - when we all knew that Hulk Hogan was just an act.
Caner's career began at the exact moment when the planes flew into the towers on September 11. Just
Why did this fake personna of Ergun Mehmet Giovanni Caner emerge after 9/11? Why did "Michael Caner" slip into the shadows and give way to "Ergun Mehmet Giovanni Caner? The same reason that Terry Bollea emerged as "Hulk Hogan" back in the 1980s: because there was a market. Terry had a very talented wrestling promoter who was an expert in the marketing of professional wrestlers, and knew he could market a "Hulk Hogan" because he knew what the fans wanted. Hulk Hogan's story line, his fake persona would sell. Of course he had the enormous physical stature, he was very charismatic, and had a menacing stare. Money could be made. Instant stardom could be had. It was there for the taking. So "Hulk Hogan" was born.
You see, after the events of 9/11, there was a HUGE need in the evangelical community for a former terrorist who had been saved by Jesus before HE himself committed terrorist acts. If such a former terrorist did exist, and if he were a talented speaker able to draw a crowd, he would be perfect to speak to churches everywhere on the evils of Islam - and he would be proof that THEIR religion of Christianity could triumph over radical Islam. This former terrorist - if he did exist - would be able to give Christians hope that their faith was the answer to preventing future terrorist acts like those of 9/11. This former terrorist - if he did exist - would help Christians make sense out of the senseless tragedy of 9/11 - and this former terrorist - if he did exist - would help pastors maintain the crowds drawn to their churches after 9/11, helping them raise money and to convert non-believers.
If such a former terrorist trained in Islamic Jihad DID exist, he needed to be found and found quickly.
The only problem: this former terrorist DID NOT EXIST.
But no problem. In America - if there is a need, if there is a market - if money is to be made - someone will emerge able to fill the need. So this former terrorist who did not exist, needed to be created. And once created, he needed to be promoted.
the direct result of Jerry Vines promoting Darrell Gilyard in the late 1980s resulting in many ruined lives in Texas and Florida from Gilyard's well-documented sexual abuse. But in 2001, before social media was around, most people were unaware of Gilyard's abuse and Vines', Falwell's and Patterson's attempts in promoting and protecting Gilyard. And isn't it ironic: Gilyard's introduction by Vines included the phony story of him growing up homeless under a bridge.
Take Hulk Hogan for example: his name is actually Terry Bollea. Terry was transformed into "Hulk Hogan" in the 1980s, with the help of promoter Vincent J. McMahan. If Caner was going to be the former terrorist trained in Islamic Jihad, the guy saved-just-before-he-got-on-the-planes, he needed a huge introduction. His first large venue was Prestonwood Baptist Church, then First Baptist Dallas, then at the big-dog, First Baptist Church Jacksonville in November 2001. All of this was done while the rubble was still smoldering at the World Trade Center.
Ergun Caner lived the life of a former terrorist raised in Turkey, speaking Arabic, using his phony persona as an "olive skinned" immigrant to tell racial and sexist jokes from the pulpit, telling fibs about his own family members, and misleading congregations everywhere into thinking he was something he was not. Caner had crowds eating out of his hand, cheering him and howling at his jokes as he spoke of growing up in Turkey - even claiming that he watched professional wrestling while growing up in Istanbul. He couldn't help but to even bring up professional wrestling as part of his phony story! Ergun Caner became so popular that his brother Emir was able to ride his coattails into speaking gigs and a seminary presidency even without telling the fibs himself.
hired by our U.S. Marines to speak to troops preparing for battle in Afghanistan. Caner posed as an expert in Turkish culture, telling our Marines many of the same fibs he told to Christians in churches all over America. Think about that: Caner used the events of 9/11 as reason to create a false ex-terrorist persona, and then used that fake persona to gain an audience of our troops engaged in the war resulting from the events of 9/11. This is the stuff of a John Gresham novel.
But unlike Terry Bollea, Michael Caner's fake persona started to unravel at the hands of bloggers who helped Christians connect the dots. Everyone knows that "Hulk Hogan" was someone else. We knew it was pure entertainment, fiction. But Christians everywhere didn't know there was a Michael Caner prior to 9/11. They thought what they saw on stage in Ergun Mehmet Giovanni Caner was real. But sadly, to the shock of many, it was just a story, a fake persona that was marketed and promoted to gullible Christians everywhere.
Ergun Caner was a hoax born out of the events of 9/11, perpetuated on gullible Christians - and I was one of them - that wanted so badly to know for sure that their Christian faith was the answer to 9/11. We trusted Jerry Vines to have vetted Caner's story - and Vines failed us, and he failed a young Michael Caner who COULD have been a credible spokesperson after 9/11 if he had been completely truthful about his real past. Michael Caner needed Jerry Vines to guide him and keep him from the temptation of embellishing his testimony.
Sadly, to this day, the story gets worse. The Caner debacle continues, as he is still being paid by Southern Baptists in Georgia as a college president, while Jerry Vines and others who bear responsibility in the hoax will not come clean. The longer Vines and Patterson and Graham stay silent - the more long-term damage will be done to the Christian faith. There is the Caner lawsuit against Jon Autry and Jason Smathers for their publishing of the Caner speeches to the Marines in 2007 - still working its way through court. And probably more lawsuits from Caner. And Caner continues to get audiences in Southern Baptist Convention churches.
But maybe the saddest part of all of this Ergun Caner saga is this: modern evangelicalism is now beginning to resemble the same phoniness of professional wrestling. Maybe Caner was just a sign of things to come. Small churches with real pastors who want to minister to people are struggling and failing - while the large mega churches with the rock-star preachers seem to be thriving. Yet these men now are being exposed as grand marketers, using their churches and their notoriety to build their brand and build their market share. That Caner still exists in the evangelical community as a man with any credibility just serves to further blur the lines and confuse the difference between what is real in the Christian faith, and what is fake. We now see Mark Driscoll using church money to buy a fake "New York Times #1 Best-Selling Author" designation, and we see Steven Furtick using his notoriety to build a mansion - while Ronnie Floyd - the next SBC president - along with most mega church pastors now preaches a prosperity gospel that shamelessly requires 10% of one's gross income to be handed over to their church to avoid the curses of the God that loves them.
Sadly, America is watching all of this unfold. And when they see Ergun Caner, Steven Furtick, Mark Driscoll, Robert Morris and Ronnie Floyd as the faces of modern, mainstream Christianity - they are also seeing Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Andre the Giant, Randy Savage, and "The Undertaker" as faces of professional wrestling.
And to most Americans, they can't tell the difference: all showmen, performers on stage, performing in front of cheering, star-struck fans, selling their stories to earn a buck and gain notoriety, and the only people still buying the tickets are the most gullible among us.