“There’s one born every minute,” the consummate showman P.T. Barnum said once, and that saying goes double for religious scams. The implication is that for every one of those every-ones born every minute, there is a person who is happy and willing to help them out with that little problem they were having of possessing money.
But have you ever wondered what a con artist does when he gets caught?
A few months ago, we talked about Tony Anthony, a guy who wrote a bestselling Christian book called Taming the Tiger. In this book and in his ensuing life as a public speaker and evangelist, he told what he claimed was his story. Oh, and that story was a wild ride, all right: in it, he gets taken to China as a little boy, where he apparently learns to be a ninja before his ninja-group sends him all over the world on top-secret missions. He ends up doing personal security work for sheiks and top-level diplomats, but then–while in prison in another country–got converted to Christianity. He spent the next few years going all over the world to share his amazing, shocking story.
Too bad that story was entirely untrue. In fact, it appears that not a single element of that story is actually true. Not a single one. What wasn’t lifted from Bruce Lee stories and old Kung Fu TV shows and movies was just made up out of whole cloth. And nobody even questioned his story for years.
Welcome to the Cult of “Before” Stories.
The “Cult of ‘Before’ Stories” is my term for the way that Christian culture so lavishly rewards liars and swindlers. Now, I want those of us who are either Christians or ex-Christians to think back to our lives before we ever got converted. Chances are we were pretty normal people, right? That’s how most people are. We were fairly normal, then heard about whatever flavor of Christianity we got into, and we converted. It made the most sense to us at the time with what we knew, so we joined up. Nothin’ to see here. Right?
But sometimes you get Christians who claim to have these simply stupendous, astonishing, totally crazy “before” stories about their lives pre-conversion. They were drug dealers. Or they did hard time for murder. Or they were Satanic Wiccan high priests overseeing wild orgies (yes, yes, I know, Wiccans aren’t Satanists and vice versa, but it’s shocking how many preachers will get this simple fact wrong in their effort to be extra-dextra shocking). Or they were ninja super-spy badasses in China ever since they were children. Whatever it was, they reached the very nadir of depravity. Then–suddenly!–that Amazing Grace moment hit them, and they converted and now their lives are absolutely amazing and blessed. They went from the absolute lowest a human being can sink to the absolute highest a Christian could achieve.
Alas, I’ve got big news for Christians: most of these amazing “before” stories are total bunk.
You heard me, Christians. Those people are almost all lying. In fact, Christians can pretty much count on one thing: the crazier and wilder the story, the more alien and exotic the “before” story’s elements, the worse of a sinner that tale-teller was before conversion, then the greater the likelihood is that the story’s audience is getting taken for a ride.
As a rule of thumb, if the story involves any form of paganism or Satanism, if there is a lot of sexual excess going on, if there are actual crimes described, if there are foreign countries visited, if there are activities that specifically go against whatever that denomination thinks are proper (like prostitution, yoga, or martial arts), you need to be paying close attention to objective evidence for that story before you repeat it to others or give your precious money to the person telling it.
During revival meetings at our church, my preacher ex Biff shamelessly, bald-faced, pants-on-fire lied right in front of me (his wife at the time and the one person in the building who would know for absolute fact that he was in fact lying) in telling his amazing testimony, and it didn’t take long for me to figure out that most of the other wild testimonies I heard were actually exaggerated or distorted somehow. The healings? Not quite as definitive as the speaker would like. That urban legend about the angels protecting that missionary woman from rape? Nope.
Testimonies just about have to be distorted and exaggerated–they are meant to persuade and convert the skeptical, and “I was fairly normal and then converted” doesn’t sound nearly as cool or persuasive as “I was a Satanist who did hard drugs and distributed porn to underage teens” (and yes, that was one testimony I personally heard from someone I categorically knew was lying because I’d known him for years). The truth just doesn’t sound very sexy sometimes, so Christians often feel free to doctor things up to make them more exciting.
Christians do love a wild “before” story. The Christians who can tell these stories convincingly have a rock-star life ahead of them–very quickly they will find themselves speaking before huge crowds and, if they so choose, will soon become the leaders of a huge (and very profitable and ego-stroking) ministry.
That is what happened to Biff, or rather was happening till I messed everything up by deconverting. That is what happened to Mike Warnke, the comedian I originally profiled in the first “Cult of ‘Before’ Stories” piece. And that is what has now happened to Tony Anthony.
It’s a lot harder to maintain a conjob in this modern age, as Mr. Anthony discovered. Mr. Warnke ran with his scam for years and years before he finally got caught. Mr. Anthony barely got ten years before someone finally investigated his story and revealed the truth.
So what does a con artist do when the scam gets unraveled?
I think that Tony Anthony’s story is interesting not just because of its obviously false elements or what its success reveals about Christian desperation for ear-tickling tales and miracles, nor even because of what it reveals about their gullibility and eagerness to be deceived. I think it’s interesting because it’s a case study in what happens after a scam has gone totally, catastrophically pear-shaped.
Think he’s reformed? Think he’s chastened? Oh no. On his website, charmingly accented by a Chinese symbol, he states: “In my defence [sic], I continue to stand wholeheartedly by the truth of my life story.” The most he’ll admit to is that he got some dates wrong and that maybe the guy who trained him in “Kung Fu” in China maybe wasn’t really his Chinese grandpa. He’s not yet willing to admit he never went to China as a child at all, that he never did bodyguard work for sheiks or diplomats, or that he knows less about Kung Fu than I do. (Though I admit, I’m very curious about whether or not he’s finally admitted he has less Chinese ancestry in him than I do–he claims that his mother is Chinese–which she isn’t, as if you needed to know, any more than his father is Italian, and his website photo and every other one of him that I’ve ever seen has him wearing what looks for all the world like a weeaboo squint like you see on white American anime freaks who start thinking they’re Japanese.) I’ve just got to ask: once you take those elements out, what exactly is he defining as “the truth” of his “life story”? He never answers that question.
Even his modifications to these stories don’t make sense. Apparently at one point he “fixed” his birth date (when it was revealed that many of his exploits were done when he would have been 13-14 years old), but that modification raised even more questions than it answers:
But he has not explained how he could have been leading five-man security teams, checking hotel rooms for IEDs, engaging in James Bond-style high-speed gun-toting chases through the streets of Riyadh and using Kung Fu kicks to overpower armed kidnappers in Switzerland; when he could only have been aged between 13 or 14 and 16 or 17; dependent upon which version of the book is used.
My takeaway? This dude can’t even fix his lies without adding more lies to them.
We’ve been all through Mr. Anthony’s denials and insistence that it’s true. We’ve already seen him attacking those who brought the truth to light and insinuating that they’re the real villains here, not the guy who has been flat-out lying to people for years and profiting from their gullibility. He calls detractors “specific people intent on destroying my ministry”–which is kind of sad considering that the people calling for the truth to be told were, by and large, involved with his ministry and fully in support of it and wanting it to succeed. But to his mind, any criticism–especially anything that makes him look bad–is obviously done by people who want to “destroy” a “ministry.” I guess Christians were supposed to just overlook his lies and deceptions and keep sending in money and buying books. Also, non-Christians never care if the testimonies being pushed at us are lies. Nope. We never mind that at all. It never makes Christianity itself look suspicious and dishonest when individual Christians blatantly lie to us. Oh wait. Actually, we totally do, and it absolutely does.
All Christians caught with their pants down go on the defensive like Mr. Anthony has. It’s not even interesting; we expect lying Christians to denydenydeny and to attack those who bring the truth to light. Liars on that kind of scale don’t feel remorse the way other people do when they wrong others or take advantage of others; if they start feeling shame for their actions, it’s a lot harder to fleece the sheep.
And make no mistake: though Mr. Anthony’s charity, Avanti, might not not technically have been a business in the sense of, say, a print shop, this charity was how he made his money. That is why it is useful to review this page’s information about how con artists operate (and yes, if you were wondering, my ex-husband Biff fits this profile to an absolute T).
Mr. Anthony’s denouement has all the hallmarks of a movie plot. It really was quite dramatic. First his own board members got curious about why there didn’t seem to be any proof of his story (which would be because the story was pure fabrication); one of the board members, Mike Hancock, ended up resigning in protest. Mr. Hancock joined up with some other board members to uncover the truth. They presented their findings to the Evangelical Alliance, a large British umbrella group for Christian ministries, which got Avanti to set up an independent investigation.
As the fallout progressed, people found out about his previous huge lies covering up a hit-and-run accident. That link I just gave y’all also discusses some of his other lies–from his date of birth to his ancestry to his very name and heritage (no, he is not in the least Chinese–he’s Cypriot); it also gives an interesting quote from the judge who dealt with the accident case, who described Mr. Anthony as “a devious and manipulative man.” The link also talks about his string of racist, abusive phone calls to a Greek restaurant that had once employed him–an incident he describes as just one single call. (What I found curious about this description is that it seems strange that a globe-trotting ninja and high-end personal security guard would work at a Greek restaurant–dude’s got a lot of free time, doesn’t he?)
Then his board discovered that why yes, actually most of the elements in his story were fabricated and they called for a special investigation. When that investigation was finished, weirdly, Avanti refused to publish it. That had been the agreement–that this third-party investigation would make a report of their findings of the truth of Mr. Anthony’s story, and then Avanti would make it available to the public.
That is not what happened.
In fact, just a couple of days after the report was handed to them, Avanti Ministries shut down–“the office was closed and the telephone was cut off,” according to a lawyer familiar with the case, and Mr. Anthony’s lawyers put a gag order on everybody involved with the report.
If it weren’t for that lawyer’s need to come clean, we’d never know what was in that report.
And what was in it?
His statement needs to be printed in full because it is awesome:
“I can say that from the clear evidence of the Research Group and other third parties, including documentary evidence which corroborated it, and without reference to any information submitted to us by Avanti or Tony Anthony, I concluded that:
1. Tony Anthony never went to China as a child as claimed,
2. He was never involved in Kung Fu as claimed, and
3. He was never involved in Close Protection as claimed.
I am of the opinion that Tony Anthony had a normal childhood in the London area, attending Holy Trinity Church of England Primary School, Eagans Close, Market Place, East Finchley, London N2 8GA as a child, which was followed by secondary education at Christ’s College, Finchley.
If anyone doubts this they can simply contact the school or have this confirmed by Tony Anthony’s mother.”
The lawyer goes on to say that Mr. Anthony and Avanti Ministries Ltd. continued to employ “deliberate deception” after the report was made by insisting that any “anomalies” were just related to “dates and certain narrative structure in the original manuscript,” which flies in the face of the report’s findings, which was “that virtually the whole of his story was a pack of lies.”
Thankfully, this lawyer is a person who cares about honesty and would rather have an honest, if somewhat less sexy, story than a false one filled with exciting lies. Too bad Mr. Anthony does not share his dedication to the truth. I don’t think he ever did, if his hit-and-run is any indication.
It seems quite clear to me that Mr. Anthony was by the time of his hit-and-run, much less by the time the independent investigation of his story occurred, so used to being believed that he seriously thought that he was bulletproof. That’s what usually brings down con artists, by the way; they start believing their own press and treating non-target people just like their target audience. And that’s a big problem for them. A con artist used to wheedling money out of old people will quickly get discovered when s/he tries to use the same tactics on younger people. A Christian conjob who relies upon Christians’ inability to judge deception will get found out when s/he starts lying to non-Christians who have no reason to just believe whatever comes out of his or her mouth.
You remember the Dover v. Kitzmiller trial, right? That’s the trial where creationists were trying to claim that “Intelligent Design” was a) not creationism and b) real science worthy of teaching children in public schools. The school board members were so used to telling lies-for-Jesus and being believed by gullible, eager-to-believe church members lacking any critical thinking skills that they totally weren’t expecting to get completely destroyed by objective third parties skilled in critical thinking and dealing with objective evidence. Here’s the link to the specific moment the creationist liars-for-Jesus realized that the judge wasn’t nearly as gullible or eager-to-believe as their church had been–but not before their ringleader almost got nailed for perjury. Alan Bonsell’s sheer shock at getting caught lying is palpable even through a transcript log.
In the same way, Biff, my ex, not only totally believed his own fabricated “testimony” by the time we broke up, but he’d lie to people who weren’t even in church, expecting them to believe him just like all the church people did. It was always downright shocking to him when he got caught, and incidentally he got caught a lot. You could tell he had no idea how to deal with it; no matter how many times he got caught lying, it was always a huge surprise to him–like some personal offense the universe had handed him.
So eventually, a con artist gets too bold and gets caught. Once a con artist has been caught, there are two ways s/he can go: either confess, or else drill down harder on the deception. It seems plain which direction Mr. Anthony is going.
A few days after the main accusations of deception were made, Mr. Anthony went on a radio show to insist that he was totally innocent and that the problems were just “minor errors in his story which would be remedied.” Remember, at this point he knew perfectly well that major swathes of the story had been revealed to be lies, but his livelihood depended upon drilling down on his deception. He had more to lose by coming clean at that point than by continuing to lie, and if previous evangelists’ stories were anything to go by, if he just held his head up high, things would blow over soon enough. Between his incredible charm and the gag order on those who knew the truth, he had no reason to suspect there’d be a problem maintaining the scam. At this point, he needed to keep things up; his publisher had already withdrawn his books from sale, so all he had now was the ministry and his preaching/speaking engagements.
According to that Wikipedia writeup I linked y’all to, Avanti Ministries got removed from the Evangelical Alliance on September 19th, which would have been a severe loss for Mr. Anthony–the Evangelical Alliance maintains not only a “resource centre” in London, but also maintains lists of churches and networks of Christians, so if he’s not listed in there, he stands to lose not only members but also money.
Indeed, as of just a few weeks ago, the unspeakable coward was cruising around New Zealand giving talks and trying to drum up business again. England and the United States are now well aware enough of his false stories that he can’t do much there right now, so he’s heading to other English-speaking countries where he’s less well-known. Too bad he almost certainly doesn’t really speak or write Chinese, which he claims his Chinese grandfather taught him during his training in China and which he was using all the way up to his stint in a Cyprus jail; if he really knew Chinese, he could go to China. I bet hardly anybody follows UK/American news there.
Thankfully, watchdogs there are on to him and raising the alarm. The New Zealand Christian Network has warned people there that his story is “99 per cent false.” Elim Church in New Zealand has issued a statement saying they have “paused” their support for the “disgraced British evangelist Tony Anthony.” They also are recommending that all member churches “steer clear” till Elim finishes their own investigation into Mr. Anthony’s claims.
Not that such denunciations matter to the member of Elim Church bringing him to New Zealand, Lyn Rule, who is apparently acting from her own desire (and, presumably with her own money and resources, the poor dear) and isn’t working with any specific organizations. It sounds like she fell for his denials and fabrications. As she said:
“He’s just come over to do what he does, and that’s to spread the gospel … I know the whole story. When you get parts of it like what’s happening, people jump to a lot of conclusions. I haven’t jumped on that bandwagon.”.
Aww, that’s so super-special sweet. She knows the truth. She knows he’s actually a great guy. She knows better than the lawyers and groups spreading the truth about him. I wonder how she came to know these things, and why she hasn’t given the world specific proof supporting her idol? And I’m using italics here not to emphasize her gender, which is itself not in the least surprising considering con artists’ notorious charm, but rather more for her insistence that she alone knows more than everybody else–which implies that she feels that she’s in Mr. Anthony’s inner circle, like she’s one of his big confidants, like he’s honored her by telling her more than he’s told even his own charity’s leaders.
I want you folks to pay close attention to how she’s defended her idol. She’s saying these things like her insistence that he’s innocent should be all anybody should need to trust someone who has been repeatedly demonstrated to be a liar. She’s saying these things like her gut feelings about his innocence override the repeated objective findings and discoveries about his constant lies and deceptions.
If there’s anything a con artist wants more than never being found out, it’s having supporters as fervent as Ms. Rule. I’m sure he’s hoping that he can gather more supporters like her before the truth about him becomes too widespread. If he can manage that trick, he might yet save this sinking ship.
All that stands in his way are people willing to be honest and to speak aloud that honesty.
I truly hope that Christians can put aside their desperate need to hear dramatic stories and conversion accounts long enough to seriously consider what it means to them, their religion, and the world of non-Christians when someone so obviously deceptive gets received warmly by their churches and believed by so many gullible Christians. I also hope that this is the straw that breaks the back of Christian gullibility; if even one Christian reads my cry-in-the-wilderness here and starts wondering about the evidence for his or her idol’s claims, then I shall consider myself to have succeeded beyond my wildest hopes.