He takes his sweet time. Bishop T.D. Jakes is in the 10th minute of a marathon sermon to 22,500 men in the Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. Today's text is Genesis 1, in which God, famously, talks to himself. Jakes, a large man dressed in an eye-catching beige leisure ensemble, appears to be doing the same. He is strolling meditatively across the stage, his baritone voice set at low rumble, and his thoughts at first seem so loose and free-associative that he cannot make it through a seven-word divine utterance. "And God said, 'Let us. Let usssssss...'" says Jakes, and then digresses: "...One God, but manifest in...three different ways, Father in creation, Son in redemption, Holy Spirit in regeneration. And God said, 'Let usssssss...' One God, not bound by time, not created in time, the master of eternity, the one that Isaiah said 'sits on the circle of the earth and rules.' It's the God that stood there, before there was There, or When, or This, or That. And God said, 'Let usssssss...' It's the omniscient God..." Jakes proceeds like this for some little while, until at last he relents and finishes the citation: "'...make man in our likeness.'" Whew.
Pentecostal preaching is mannered. Jakes' eccentric pauses, coy glances at his audience and the occasional odd, Holy Spirit-inspired stutter that sounds like a skipping CD might normally mystify or annoy the nonanointed. And yet, somehow, they do not. Like Brando's mumbling or Michael Jordan's outstretched tongue, they are pendants to an overwhelming gift.
He purrs like Isaac Hayes and screams like Jay Hawkins. He slips from quoting a standard hymn--"Just as I am, without one plea/but that Thy blood was shed for me"--almost straight into hip-hop: "Transform me/Translate me/I release you to rearrange me/Are you willing to be changed?" He does this without warning or acknowledgement. (If you miss one riff, don't worry, there will be another one along in moments.) And however leisurely Jakes' presentation may seem, each sermon eventually reveals itself as perfectly calibrated and balanced, cohering into an often exquisite extended metaphor.
At Tropicana Field, Jakes' subject turns out to be every man's value as created in God's image, and the necessity of allowing God to develop that image as a photographer develops a piece of film. "Is there anybody here who's been in a darkroom?" he asks, alluding both to film processing and the dark places of the soul. The men, including hundreds watching via satellite hookup from prisons, roar in recognition. An hour later, lakes of sweat spreading across his formidable frame, Jakes has abandoned form and logic and is chanting, "Develop it, man, develop it. Develop it. Develop it. Develop it. Whatever it takes, develop it."
Vincent Synan, dean of religion at Regent University, contends that Jakes and Billy Graham are the only two evangelists who could pack Atlanta's 79,000-capacity Georgia Dome (both have), "but Graham has 50 years of fame and a great organization." Says Lee Grady, editor of the religious magazine Charisma: "We talk about someone being anointed. Jakes knows he's got a special trust."