The Cult of “Before” Stories Got a New Member Last Month.

One of my earliest blog entries, A Cult of “Before” Stories, remains one of the most-often-viewed pages on the entire blog (thanks, RationalWiki readers!). It was about how my preacher ex-husband Biff, as well as other Christians including the very well-known-at-the-time Mike Warnke, lied constantly while telling his “testimony” (for non-fundagelicals, a “testimony” is a Christian’s mini-biography detailing his or her life before conversion, the circumstances around the conversion, and how life’s been since conversion; they are often deployed in preaching, evangelizing, or witnessing to others).

At the time, it surprised me that this entry over the other ones had spoken on such a level to people, but over time I began to realize that my experience with Christian liars served a real function in our post-Christian society. The simple truth is that Christians lie. They lie just as often as non-Christians lie, maybe more even, and our society hasn’t quite come to grips with that fact yet. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Christians do not have a monopoly on decency or morality, and until people realize that and stop giving them passes or taking their word for things, the religion’s more toxic elements are not going to do anything but get worse.

Stories about Christians being saved from lives of wretched sin and debauchery sell. Testimonies about these conversions and rescues get a lot of attention and a lot of rewards both socially and financially. Obviously not just Christians lie about their redemption or their medical miracles/problems, but in the Christian world, you can pretty much count on any testimonies involving dramatic turnarounds to be at the very least exaggerated or distorted if they aren’t outright lies. Simply put, I have never heard or read a single dramatic testimony that stood up to inquiry.

There’s a good reason why these dramatic stories aren’t trustworthy. Like the Gospels themselves, they aren’t simple histories or anecdotes. These testimonies are created for the express purposes of swaying non-believers and convincing people of the Christian god’s power and grace, and because of those goals, they simply cannot be trusted. Moreover, from the earliest days of Christianity itself, even in Paul’s day, to the modern day, “lying for Jesus” was not only acceptable but seen as necessary at times to convert the lost; lying might not be awesome, but a sinner spending an eternity getting tortured was surely far worse, so lies got rationalized as essential tools in saving the lost.

That whole mindset was definitely Biff’s attitude about his lies–he was helping cement people’s faith and convert sinners, so in his mind it was okay to misrepresent things the way he did. And let me tell you: it blew his mind that his lies bothered me as much as they did. He didn’t see the problem at all. The ends justified the means 100%. That I was even questioning his tactics was a serious black mark against me–did I not want to save sinners? Did I not care about someone going to hell? (My answer, bee tee dubs: Yes, of course I did, but I didn’t see why just telling the truth wasn’t good enough if we were in fact following a real god with a truthful source book. You can guess how well that went over with him.) And that’s what Christians are saying even now about Mike Warnke–he’s got supporters still like Dwayna Litz who were still insisting years after Warnke’s fall from grace that he was unfairly attacked and that these attacks are no less than attacks on Christianity and goodness itself.

The rewards for telling lies are just too great, and the social penalties for questioning lies are just too serious.

Even to speculate about their truthfulness is like questioning the Christian god’s grace and power–and nobody wants to do that! So lies get compounded on lies and told and retold, often by Christians who value truth but also don’t understand that the people who’ve created these tales might not hold the same values they do. Christians are well-known for retelling and passing along feel-good or obviously manipulative scare-tactic stories and urban legends without questioning them. The other day on Facebook I ran into a Christian who genuinely believes in miracles. That’s fine, he’s allowed, but he began pushing them as objective and real “evidence” of his god’s existence and power. Every one of his miracle stories had already been debunked–some decades ago–and others were clearly blatant con games or urban legends, but he seemed blissfully unaware that they had been discounted long before he’d put his faith into them. He went on to attack the people questioning his stories as “close-minded” and “hard-hearted” if I remember correctly, and clung to his illusions on the basis of “well, that’s just your opinion.” No, you idiot, it’s a fact that there is no evidence supporting your claims, I wanted to shout. And he’s far from unique in his reaction, in my experience. If someone does question Christians’ stories, the questioner gets attacked and demonized, their motivations get questioned and picked apart, and the story’s veracity gets drilled down on even harder.

There’s a lot riding on these stories; if they are questioned, then the Christian’s very integrity is also being questioned, as well as his or her judgement and critical thinking skills. And that’s before we get into the question of where their god’s power and grace is if these stories aren’t true. I mean, think about it: if this kid’s “healing” wasn’t real, then is anybody’s? If this miracle claim is untrue, then what about this claim? Or that one? Or that other one over yonder? It’s probably not surprising that we so rarely hear about a Christian minister saying “whoops, that story I told you all last Sunday about how the song ‘Amazing Grace’ got written wasn’t actually true. It was just an urban legend and I didn’t fact-check well enough before deciding to retell it. Turn in your hymnbooks to…” And just as rarely do we see a Facebook Christian recant a false story or apologize for spreading testimonies that aren’t true. Actually, I’d say “never” rather than “rarely.” In my direct–albeit brief–experience on La Facebook, when one of their breathless miracle stories gets debunked, usually there’s just a big argument and then the next day there’s another breathless claim made. I’ve never seen a Christian retract a disproven claim yet.

The whole sickening and diseased situation is a predator’s wet dream. Because of the high social penalties imposed upon doubters, the people telling these lies know that nobody’s going to check their stories. Nobody’s going to ask them hard questions or demand evidence for their claims. If anybody does push past all that potential censure to ask for evidence, the common procedure is to attack the person asking for proof rather than furnish that proof; if the liar is definitively caught out, then there are plenty of ways to control and contain the damage without recanting or admitting a lie was told.

Really, you’d think people who value truthfulness would be more concerned about finding out if a story they spread is true or not, but apparently you’d be wrong.

Or at least, that’s how things generally work.

Maybe things are improving.

Yesterday I ran across the story of Tony Anthony, who wrote the stirring testimonial Taming the Tiger.

Tony Anthony kind of blew in from nowhere to catapult into stardom about ten years ago with his testimony. And wow, it had all the elements that should have made Christians’ ears perk up and their eyes squint in doubt: martial arts goodness, white tigers, murders, the Mafia, exotic locales, important people, and of course a super-dramatic turnaround at the weirdest possible time as he discovered that Christianity was true. Rather than make Christians even more determined to verify these preposterous stories, the dramatic elements that Anthony fantasized into print just titillated his audiences and made them want more–and he was happy to provide. Thanks to the money pouring in, he was able to evangelize all over the world, and his interviews were broadcast to adoring fans.

Well, mostly his audience was adoring fans. There were some detractors, even early on. His book read like a fiction novel, they said, and they were right. The martial arts details sounded really off, they said, and they were right. There was no evidence for a single thing he was saying about his life, they said, and they were sort of right–there was evidence, but the evidence disproved his story (such as his insistence that his kung-fu grandmaster grandfather had taken him to China at the age of four, when his grandfather was neither a grandmaster nor even alive when Anthony was born). Heck, even the name he used, Tony Anthony, wasn’t his real birth name, and he’d been using a false date of birth that made his story completely ludicrous. (Source.) And of course, just like all the other Christians in the Cult of “Before” Stories, Tony Anthony claimed to have committed horrific crimes like murder–but nobody seemed interested in holding him accountable for those crimes or even investigating them.

One of the larger martial arts websites and fan groups, Bullshido, had a long-running thread starting in 2007 debunking him and his claims. It’s pretty good reading, if you have some time and like hearing martial artists shoot the breeze (disclaimer: I’ve been a registered member on that site for many years). The Christians who listened all breathless to his accounts and believed him could have saved themselves a lot of time and effort and money if they’d just read the Bullshido thread. Not many evangelicals probably know much about martial arts, which is clearly something Tony Anthony was counting on, but martial artists do, and they watch a lot of martial arts movies and TV shows and read a lot of books about martial artists. So when he describes in his book an incident wherein he lifted a super-hot cauldron with his wrists and carried it around, these guys immediately realized he was describing a scene from the TV series “Kung Fu.” They knew how to check out his claims of holding multiple world championships in Kung Fu. They also knew that there is no such thing as the “IKFF” he describes belonging to, another thing that evangelicals wouldn’t likely know anything about either. (For that matter, martial arts groups don’t normally function like Mission Impossible spy rings, sending their members off to be trained and assigning them jobs to do.)

Bullshido’s list of errors and lies goes on and on, but I’ll leave it at this: without any doubt in the world, like all con artists, Tony Anthony knew that the people who were likely to know he was a total fraud, actual martial artists, were not likely to be in his audiences, while the people who were most likely to hear about him, evangelical Christians, were also the least likely to know that what he was describing was a complete fantasy.

Martial Arts Exhibition 1
Martial Arts Exhibition 1 (Photo credit: pennstatenews). Ia! Ia! ! Cthluhu fhtagn!

If I were going to defraud and fool Christians, you can absolutely bet that I’d choose a topic they simply had no experience with or expertise in and build up a reputation as some kind of expert at it. I can’t imagine a better way for a con artist to borrow a little authority or make himself seem more exotic. What better topic to pretend a background in than martial arts? Evangelicals don’t trust martial arts anyway; as a group, they distrust anything Asian like that–yoga, meditation, and martial arts are all things that toxic Christians genuinely hate and fear as demonic (when the Miata came out when I was in college, my church denounced it as demonic because ads for it claimed that its creators had incorporated feng shui in its design; me and my Pentecostal friends called the ones we saw “evil Miatas”). Anthony might as well have claimed to have been a Satanist, but Satanism was so drearily 80s. The new thing to fear-and-hate for the last decade has been the mysterious East, so it’s easy for me to see that that’s why he went that direction.

And the rewards for going that direction are huge. I don’t think most Christians realize how much money there can be in evangelizing. If an evangelist is really good, then s/he (usually he, though there are plenty of shes in it) can get invited to really big churches to speak and preach. Besides whatever support the home church is giving, these speaking engagements may pay in and of themselves–and typically in addition there’ll be a tip, or “love offering,” taken up during the service added to that fee. If a church of a thousand people gives even a little money, that can add up fast–and the evangelist will be speaking at churches every week, ideally. Charles Templeton, the famous evangelist and later de-convert, called this custom of tips a “scandal” and asked for a flat fee instead. Think of evangelism like professional sports or acting: many people struggle for little to no pay in the field, but for a chosen few with “star power,” they can quickly catapult into fame, riches, and greatness. And every extra on every soap opera and every bench-warmer in a minor league bullpen is hoping and dreaming for their big break. Well, Tony Anthony found his.

Now, twenty years ago, he might have gotten away with this act. Mike Warnke certainly lasted a very long time before Cornerstone decided to investigate. Christians lie all the time, but they don’t publish books or become famous at it for the most part, so nobody even thinks to question them or publicly expose them. The ones who do, though, are discovering more quickly than they used to that those other fraudsters have ruined everything for them. Yep. This is why they can’t have nice things. What confuses me is why it took over five years for the criticisms and demands for evidence to finally come to a head. In the age of information, with the world at our fingertips, it’s easier than ever to check a story out–but for some reason, for years, nobody substantial seems to have done so. Anthony could afford to ignore his detractors; they were isolated occurrences, forum pests, niggling voices drowned out by the crowds. It took over five years for anybody important to really make headway with Anthony’s story.

One of his charity’s own directors finally asked for evidence for the amazing stories they were pushing. Instead of just giving it to him, the charity was apparently evasive and refused to furnish any. The director resigned and with some other Christians (including another director who’d resigned a while ago) did what these guys should have done from the get-go and did some digging around to find out if this ludicrous story really happened. And guess what? Just about nothing in it had. What parts of it weren’t pure fantasy were lifted right out of TV shows and movies (like the incidents mentioned above). Notice that the TV shows and movies Tony Anthony plagiarized were also ones that evangelical Christians do not typically watch. If you think the lies I’ve outlined are all of them, read up on him. It’s astonishing what he lied about that apparently nobody ever thought to ask about. Though I’m not sure how well that’d have worked: “Hey, Tony, you wrote about how you’d crossed a desert with just a bottle of Evian water. How’d that go again?”

Naturally, in the wake of the criticisms of his truthfulness, Anthony has insisted that the details might not be accurate, but that his testimony is truthful; just like all the other lying Christians before him, “he claimed instead that the criticisms against him were a “stern attack” and an attempt to destroy his ministry and dismantle Avanti.” Yep. It’s an “attack” to question him and demand evidence for his claims. I’m sure it wouldn’t take long to find a host of Christians who either support him even though his story has been proven categorically false, or support him and insist that he is being “attacked” just like he says he is; one journalist even discusses this tactic in detail. It’s hard for me not to draw a clear line from the fatal car accident he caused just a couple years before he started a ministry charity, Avanti, and got his testimonial book published, to the last month’s events swirling around him. That he has a perennial and long-standing problem with being truthful and honest seems quite clear to me.

Just like all the Christian liars before him, the problem to him is not that he lied, but that people figured out he lied and were distancing themselves from him as a result of his lies. Just like all the other Christian liars before him, he blames the people who figured out the truth instead of taking accountability for himself and admitting it when he got found out beyond any shadow of doubt.

What blows my mind is that nobody actually checked this guy’s history. Nobody found that story about the car crash and that he’d lied to save his skin when he killed a woman by breaking a traffic law. Nobody thought it was weird that he was using a fake name and birth date. Nobody figured out if he’d really done anything he’d said, or even checked up on the few names he does provide (like the name of a diplomat who, of course, doesn’t exist). Dude must have a schwanzstucker the size of the Eiffel Tower or something to be so brazen. Nope, he is speaking as a Christian to Christian audiences, so obviously he’s telling the truth. And they embraced him just like they’d embraced Mike Warnke and my ex Biff before him, and believed everything he said just like they’d believed the lies of the liars who came before him.

Now, think about what outsiders think when a Tony Anthony comes along and gets debunked. Just consider it. Someone like me would say “Pfft, of course it was false.” Indeed, here’s an entertaining forum thread wherein skeptics laugh and joke about how yet another evangelist’s wild story has been proven to be nothing but lies from top to bottom. They’re not surprised at all, and neither am I. I’ve been out long enough that I’ve seen a dozen Tony Anthonys come and go. I know that Christians are not as a group any more trustworthy than anybody else, and that they tend to be a little gullible when it comes to outrageous claims. But imagine what a tender new convert would think. Or someone who is uncertain about their faith. Why can’t Christianity come up with true stories? Why are Christians so eager to believe lies if they’re really cool lies? Why the reliance on untruths and falsehoods to convert people? Why can’t they police themselves and be aware of the massive incentives they present to lie (and the massive penalties they present to those questioning the lies)? When I was struggling to hold onto my faith, liars were a big impact on me–not because they were “bad Christians” but because they made me question everything about my chosen religion.

I really wish Christians would, next time another Tony Anthony comes along with a wild testimony, do their own blasted police work and verify the story so when–not if–it gets debunked, they maybe won’t take yet another credibility hit. For people who think lying is a sin and claim a special understanding of morality and goodness, it doesn’t speak well for the validity of their religion that they make it so insanely easy to lie and yet so hard to get to the truth of their stars’ claims. And it makes me–and I’m sure lots of other folks–wonder what about their religion is so weak that it relies upon lies to this extent and why the standard reaction to getting caught spreading a lie is to demonize and attack the person(s) who have exposed the lie rather than admit the lie and make amends.

I’ve just got to wonder if Tony Anthony saw this coming at all–the shame, the humiliation, the exposure, the tatters of truth that finally, finally, finally obliterated the sparkling lies he told. Hope he enjoyed the high life while he had it. I’m sure he’ll find another angle to work. The end of a con never means the end of a con man. And as long as Christians value a great story over a truthful story, there’ll be another Tony Anthony along sooner or later to awe and astonish them and make them feel more secure in their faith–until their star gets debunked, and then, why, the ride will simply begin again with another conductor.

Next up, we’re going to talk a little more about bad Christians and “genuine Christianity,” since there still seems to be some confusion on that topic. I hope to see you there.

(My great thanks to one of my sharp-eyed readers for catching this dramatic development! I’m starting to think I should take the plunge into Twitter so I can keep up with this stuff.)

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