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.
"Black liberation theology, at its root, was an attempt to bring a Christian answer forward with intellectual force and coherence," says Carter. "This theology says Jesus, as God's representative in the world, was about deliverance, uplift and liberation of the downtrodden. God is working out the uplift of his people and freeing the captors as well as the captives from the structures of oppression."
But even as he made note of this liberation theology, Wright set himself apart from it and claimed he spoke more directly from "the prophetic theology of the black church."
At the National Press Club, Wright pointed to Isaiah, "where God says the prophet is to preach the gospel to the poor and to set at liberty those who are held captive. Liberating the captives also liberates those who are holding them captive."
Says Carter: "He is harkening back to the prophets of ancient Israel, charged by God to call Israel back to its mission, identity and purpose. They often had to use such harsh words that Jeremiah was thrown in a dungeon for his gloom-and-doom declarations. The prophet's job is speaking truth to power, not on their own authority but on God's."
Teresa Fry Brown, associate professor of homiletics and director of the Black Church Studies program at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, says, "Prophets don't make it up as they go along. They're really affirming what the people already know and don't want to do. It's not something you volunteer for. Prophets get ostracized, attacked, even killed."
Fry Brown, who did her doctoral dissertation on religion and social transformation, says, "Wright touches on the yearning people have to be free, to be the full person they were meant to be outside of personal and societal bondage. But we can't have social change without pain, and we can't leave people wounded and bleeding on all sides. That's why Wright is calling for reconciliation, forgiveness and healing."
Black people hear Wright saying this, and they don't hear it as being only about and for black people, Carter says. Like the Bible, it unites both black and white by transforming and reconciling all, he says.