By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 8, 2005
LYNCHBURG, Va. -- The lecture at Liberty University was vintage Jerry Falwell -- the booming voice, the evangelical fervor, the jokes:
"The average mainline church doesn't say Jesus is the God; they say we all have our own truth. You're pushed to the outside if you say there is one God. It's like being on 'The Ricki Lake Show' all day long ."
But the lecturer in Room 114 of Religion Hall wasn't Falwell, the university's founder and chancellor. It was Ergun Mehmet Caner, a bald, goateed former Muslim from Turkey who is the new dean of Liberty's seminary. His Falwell-esque charisma and his unusual heritage have created a buzz that he is one of evangelical Christianity's future leaders.
Caner, 40, told his students that infighting Christians are like bored dogs "on a coon hunt" and declared that he had "straight-up hair envy" for a long-tressed contestant on American Idol.
"The average Christian professor has been saved, sanctified and bored," he said in an interview before class. "These kids think theology is dry because we are dry."
Caner's star rocketed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when he became a controversial in-house expert on Islam for the evangelical Christian community. His 11 books have sold a quarter of a million copies, and he is booked as a speaker at churches years in advance. Falwell appointed him dean this spring, two years after he joined the faculty at Liberty, one of the fastest-growing evangelical schools in the nation.
Caner said he believes that his popularity among Christians is largely attributable to his Islamic heritage, a faith he said is linked inextricably with violence and sexism. Most of his books have focused on Islam's "trail of blood," as he calls Islamic history, and when prominent Southern Baptist leaders call Muhammad a "demon-possessed pedophile" -- angering Muslims worldwide -- they have cited Caner as their source.
"There's no doubt he is an incredible personality," said R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the oldest such institution. And, Mohler said, Caner "brings the credibility of being on the inside."
The rapid rise of Caner -- as well as his brother and co-author Emir, recently named a dean at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, one of the nation's largest Southern Baptist schools -- comes as evangelical Christians are pouring more resources into learning about Muslims, with the ultimate goal of converting them. Evangelical schools, like secular ones, are expanding their Islamic studies programs, seminars are being held on how to appeal to Muslims and speakers such as Caner are beginning to preach in Islamic countries -- though he said he won't specify where because it is illegal in some places.
Caner is among a group of young evangelical leaders who say their community has been willfully ignorant of other faiths, cultures and opinions, which has cut them off from the diverse wave of people immigrating to the United States. This group -- which includes the Caner brothers and Falwell's son Jonathan -- believes that evangelicals have to engage the culture and meets to discuss issues such as how to preach against homosexuality in an increasingly tolerant era and how to spot a Hindu by diet and dress.
"It's no longer enough to, say, understand a Mormon. You have to understand Jainism, Shintoism, Buddhism," said Caner, who plans to launch a master's degree in global apologetics, the defense of Christianity compared with the other world religions.
Caner said he feels that most non-Western Muslims are ignorant of Christianity -- and that Christians are decidedly illiterate in their own history as well. After hearing much post-Sept. 11 Muslim-bashing, he was driven to write his last book about the Crusades.
"That's where we went wrong," he said. "Forced faith isn't faith. You can't torture someone into believing in Jesus."
But at a time when Christian-Muslim relations are fragile, Caner's appointment, and that of his brother, is worrisome to some Muslims and more moderate evangelical leaders. They question why Caner uses isolated quotes out of historical context to sum up an entire faith and whether Liberty would have selected someone with no administrative background if it weren't for his power to attract controversy.
"This is not accidental," said the Rev. Charles Kimball, an ordained Baptist minister who directed the National Council of Churches' Middle East office and now teaches world religions at Wake Forest University. "It says, 'These are rising stars, and they will get even more visibility.' And this is all ratcheting up because of world events."
Although Caner says his objective is to connect with other cultures, critics say that his only mission is conversion and that his comments prove his prejudice.
Ebrahim Moosa, professor of Islamic thought at Duke University, said in an e-mail that Caner's appointment sends the message that Liberty "does not wish to engage in a dialogue with civilization. . . . It was a poor and regrettable decision, one that most credible institutions would avoid."
Greg Warner, executive editor of the independent Associated Baptist Press news service, said Liberty's choices are watched and considered important because the school is growing so quickly and because Falwell is an international figure.
Although Christians hungry for information about Islam after Sept. 11 are increasingly open to Muslims, Warner said, conservatives still "look suspiciously" at the expanded dialogue.
"They don't want in the name of dialogue to obscure the claims of the Christian Gospel, particularly the exclusivity of Christ," he said. "Conservatives react to that and have been reluctant to join the chorus for more interaction between the faiths."
Interaction is what Caner said he wants. He said he refuses to go to Christian coffeehouses and prefers to hang out where he is the only Christian in the room so he can talk to non-Christians. But almost all the conferences and concerts he speaks at are for Christians, and almost all of his students are evangelicals.
Caner was raised in Turkey and Sweden in an Islamic family before moving as a teenager to Ohio, where a friend brought him to church and he embraced Christianity. Now he refers to both Muslims and evangelicals as "my people" and says he is hopeful that moderate Muslims can bring change, and peace, to Islamic countries. He said he criticizes Muslims for their own good. "Before you recognize that you need to be saved, you need to recognize that you're lost," he said.
Falwell himself takes a therapist-like approach to the issue, saying Caner lashes out because he was hurt that his family disowned him.
"I think his humanity probably reacts to the fact that his conversion hasn't been accepted by people who are special to him," said Falwell, who said Caner's heritage is an interesting hook but not the reason he was promoted. "I do not think he is in any way hostile toward Islam."