The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's former pastor, has set off a faith-and-politics firestorm with a recent series of inflammatory public addresses.
Obama disowned his United Church of Christ minister's sharp political views on U.S. history, culture, faith and future, particularly a strident sermon/press conference at the National Press Club last week.
But even as political pundits gnaw over Wright's every line and voters consider how much his politics may have affected Obama, many who heard his recent addresses are puzzled by Wright's theological references and startled by his powerhouse delivery.
Wright appears to be casting himself as a prophet, shouting out a stern and unpopular message, emulating the biblical Jeremiah, sent by God to scold the wayward people of Israel and forecast God's wrath.
In his televised talks with Bill Moyers, his address to the NAACP in Detroit and the press club appearance in Washington, Wright used words and phrases such as "homiletics," "hermeneutics," "black liberation theology" and "prophetic tradition," and he not only shouted his points, but he also sang, chanted, mocked and even danced a step or two.
"That delivery style is actually not abnormally flamboyant. I'm a white preacher, and I've seen this kind of emotionally engaging and interactive speaking style in any number of black and white churches," says Michael Duduit, editor of Preaching Magazine, which focuses on homiletics, or the study of preaching.
"What makes him seem exceptional to a national audience is that you don't see this often in a mainline church such as his denomination, the United Church of Christ. But you do see it in Pentecostal or charismatic denominations and even more in evangelical churches of many kinds where people focus on a direct personal relationship with Jesus."
Every preacher and theologian has a hermeneutic, a point of view for interpreting scriptural text and applying Scripture to present-day reality.
"Someone reading the Exodus story who was a slave would read it differently than the white master on that same plantation," says J. Kameron Carter, associate professor of Theology and Black Church Studies at Duke University Divinity School. "Hermeneutics isn't whether you have the Scripture right or wrong, it's the sunglasses you're wearing when you read it and when you look out at the world,"
Part of that viewpoint is a communal sense of faith. At the National Press Club, Wright cast all criticism of himself as an "attack on the black church" because, historically and culturally, black people have not thought of their religious life in individualistic ways, Carter says.
"The afflictions of Miss Jones down the street or a sanitation worker or a middle-class person are all bound together by history and experiences across time. Attacking Wright is seen as attacking that tradition," Carter says. This view defies any kind of inward, individualized piety or spirituality, he says.
Wright frequently made reference to black liberation theology, a term popularized in the 1960s as an African-American adaptation of the "liberation theology" that was brewing among Catholic priests and professors struggling for the poor in Latin America, portraying Jesus as a liberator.
Consider the context of the times: President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated, the Black Power movement was rising and non-violence had appeared to have failed, Carter says.