The gospel of health and happiness is widely preached in America, especially on television. Indeed, it often appears to be the central message of some of the best known evangelical ministers in the land. But no one comes remotely close to perfecting the power of this message quite like television and media star Oprah Winfrey. She has made this message into a type of "salvific talk" that is widely popular in mainstream culture, especially among women. O, the magazine that Oprah publishes, even refers to her work as her “mission.” The magazine often features themes such as fun, couples, freedom, strength, forgiveness, life redemption, etc. She even talks a lot about god in her columns and programs. In an April 2002 issue of O she wrote: “I used to ask God to help me master a new virtue every year.” Her brand of self-help religion is quintessentially American and fits well with the kind of Christian-lite moralism of our recent past.
At the center of Oprah’s vast empire is her still popular television show, now in its twenty-first season. I can still recall when Oprah was a fledgling local program in Chicago. She was engaging way back then and has now perfected this form of talk to become a true cultural phenomenon. Oprah helps moms with kids, encourages people who are victims to forgive their attackers, and always seeks to convey a message of positive affirmation. Oprah’s message, wrote Marcia Z. Nelson in the Christian Century ("Oprah on a Mission: Dispensing a Gospel of Health and Happiness," September 25–October 8, 2002), is really simple: “Make yourself happy!” Adds Nelson, “From a biblical standpoint, her teaching is idiosyncratic, like her name—a misspelling of Orpah, Naomi’s other daughter-in-law in the Book of Ruth.” The use of the word "idiosyncratic" here is both appropriate and vastly understated.
Oprah has the golden touch. She once turned works of fiction into “new” best-sellers and helped new authors books become instant best-sellers. Sales for her on-again, off-again, book club were astronomical, proving her star-power to market and promote. When she openly endorsed, and actively supported President Obama, no one knew for sure what impact she had on the election but one must guess it was considerable. (Even granting that vast numbers of her audience would have voted for him anyway, still she endorsed him when a woman candidate was still very much in the race!) Phyllis Tickle, a well-known religion writer and editor, says Oprah recommends, “morally sound material, by and large, that is credible and enriching . . . Like most of what she does, you’re the better for having read them. Her tastes are very pastoral as well as literary.” That's an interesting and recurring theme with Oprah as well: she is pastoral.
Oprah has a conversational and very calm way of speaking and interviewing guests. I believe this helps to win her such a huge following. She particularly appeals to middle-class, middle-American women. These women are seeking to juggle busy lives and homes. They want to lose weight, strengthen their marriage and raise good kids. Oprah is there to help them and help she does. If Oprah does anything she gives people a number of useful tools to cope with modern life.
In some ways Oprah is the quintessential pastor to women. She hears confessions, provides counsel and real encouragement, gives meaning for living a modern life and empowers people to actually live better. Oprah has used, over the years, what Marcia Nelson has rightly called “a whole team of fixers.” Dr. Phil got his start with Oprah. And she fixes other problems too, raising millions of dollars for some great social causes.
But Oprah has her own way of believing and serving. She has been known to turn down an offer to help when the political scenario associated with the offer was not one she liked. (Most people do the same, if they are honest.) She is a decisive and confident person and an amazing entrepreneur. What makes her so effective, however, is her ability to draw on her own life story and then relate it to others. Wade Clark Roof, a frequent commentator on American religious trends and ideas, says: “I think she talks out of experience and relates to people talking out of experience. Spirituality talk is talk that arises out of experience.” One might say Oprah has mastered the side of Christian experience that we once called “giving a testimony.” After all, her experience was shaped by the African-American church.
Marcia Z. Nelson, in the aforementioned Christian Century article from nearly seven years ago (I draw upon in this article heavily in this post), listed ten reasons why Oprah is a compelling and successful spiritual teacher.
1. She is easy to understand.
2. She is very human.
3. She acknowledges the reality of suffering and also wants to do something to relieve it.
4. She provides a community “of a sort.”
5. She encourages self-examination.
6. She teaches gratitude.
7. She reminds us of what is good, what is important, what a person can do.
8. She teaches morality by using role models.
9. She listens well, almost the way a priest would hear a confession.
10. She promotes forgiveness and tries to show how it is possible.
Before I offer any significant criticism I urge Christian readers to recognize that each of the above reasons for Oprah's compelling mission have some foundation in the gospel. I know a number of Christians who co
uld learn a lot from Oprah and I include myself.
But, and this is huge, there is no clear “gospel” in her message, not if the gospel is about the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Having grown up in the Christian church one could hope for a glimpse here and there of the true gospel but it is not to be found. If anything, Oprah’s message can easily become a “false gospel” since it gives people hope with the “good news of the kingdom.”
I do not believe the answer to Oprah, however, is to attack her. I think the answer is to appreciate her immense good and then remind Christians, and non-Christians alike, that Oprah may be a very good role model but in the end she is not preaching the message of faith. She can help people. But Christ alone can save people, both in this world and the next.
What I find curious is that many popular preachers sound much more like Oprah than they do Jesus. Maybe we should fix our own household before we attack someone who has helped so many people. In the end we need to be reminded of the piercing and difficult words of Jesus: “What good will it be for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your own soul? Or what can you give in exchange for your soul?” (Matthew 16:26).