Having only caught glimpses of the Oprah finale, I’m not really qualified to comment at much length. Numerous accounts have assured me, however, that the show boasted a surprising amount – even for Oprah – of religious references and allusions, more than a handful of which were explicitly Christian. For example, when asked about the secret to her success, Oprah answered, ”My team… and Jesus.” Oprah, of course, is a notoriously easy target, and we all have our own take on which Jesus she’s actually talking about. But it would take an enormously cynical person to say that there’s not at least some degree of sincerity going on here, some good with the bad re: her faith, however opportunistic, self-servingly convenient, unapologetically gnostic or just plain confused it may appear to be. That said, Mark Oppenheimer’s column in the NY Times a few weeks ago, “The Church That Winfrey Built,” hit the nail on the head, critically-speaking, in its highlighting of the problematic way Oprah instrumentalizes suffering (in a way that, yes, sounds a little akin to a theology of the cross, while stopping short of the whole, you know, dying part) and formularizes redemption. As we all know, salvation/transformation-by-numbers makes for great, dare-I-say-groundbreaking television but terrible religion; the Charles Finney reference is absolutely spot-on, and a great follow-up to JDK’s post on the subject a couple months ago. Perhaps someone who actually watched the entire spectacle will fill us in on their impressions:
While respecting Ms. Winfrey’s use of her Christian heritage, Dr. Eva Illouz [author of Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery] ultimately concluded that the talk-show host might be something of a false prophet. That is because, she said, Ms. Winfrey and her cadre of self-help experts treated suffering as something beneficial. Ms. Winfrey turned the black church’s ethos of self-reliance in the face of suffering into an exaltation of suffering itself.
“By making all experiences of suffering into occasions to improve oneself,” Dr. Illouz wrote, “Oprah ends up — absurdly — making suffering into a desirable experience.” And if, as Ms. Winfrey’s teachings suggest, strong women “can always transcend failure by the alchemy of their own will and of therapy, then people have only themselves to blame for their misery,” Dr. Illouz said.
Ms. Winfrey has religious antecedents besides the black church. Kathryn Lofton argues in her new book, “Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon,” that to understand Ms. Winfrey it helps to know Charles Grandison Finney, the great antebellum evangelist.
In his 1830 revival campaign in Rochester, Mr. Finney formalized the “anxious bench,” a pew or altar where sinners congregated while members of the crowd prayed for them to repent or become Christians. A whole plotline revolved around the bench, and worshipers eagerly anticipated its ritual. Who would sit there? Would they be saved? “At every point,” Dr. Lofton writes, “the preacher prodded, focused, named and decried.”
Dr. Lofton argues that in an atmosphere suffused with Ms. Winfrey’s beliefs in miracles, angels and pervasive spirituality, audience members got to see guests participate in “the familiar ritual turn of daily confession and rejuvenation.” Whether the day’s show featured the organization expert decluttering somebody’s home or “confessions of a once-upon-a-time Haitian child slave,” the redemptive plot arc, the payoff of deliverance, was the same.
“The Oprah Winfrey Show” made viewers feel that they constantly had to “sculpt their best lives,” Dr. Lofton writes. Yet in her religious exuberance Ms. Winfrey gave people some badly broken tools. Ms. Winfrey nodded along to the psychics and healers and intuitives. She rarely asked tough questions, and because she believed, millions of others did, too.