Weston Kosova and Pat Wingert believe television celebrity Oprah Winfrey possesses a “lifelong quest for love, meaning and fulfillment [that] plays [itself] out on her stage each day. In an age of information overload, she offers herself as a guide through the confusion” (“Crazy Talk: Oprah, Wacky Cures and You,” in Newsweek, June 8, 2009). I can’t think of a better description of the star appeal of Oprah Winfrey than that—she is a guide to millions of viewers who see her as a normal person, just like them in some ways. She struggles with gaining and losing weight, with aging and health, beauty and friendship, and most of all, with the deepest moral and spiritual questions being asked in our culture. She speaks to people who feel that no one else speaks to them so plainly and humanely. In a previous post I praised this very quality in Oprah.
But the problem, say Kosova and Wingert, is that Oprah not only offers some pretty good advice, mixed with the success stories that multitudes believe should be their own story but she gives people guidance that is often false, even bordering on quackery. The Newsweek authors provide numerous examples of this point. (I am sure Newsweek had this article critiqued by good attorneys before it was published. Newsweek, under the guidance of editor Jon Meacham, has become my favorite general news magazine.) While the authors of this article give a generally positive nod to regular guests like Dr. Oz, who is my personal favorite, they are wary of guests like Suzanne Somers, Jenny McCarthy and Dr. Christiane Northrup, a regular physician on the show. (I do not watch Oprah faithfully but I have seen enough to get a good feel for her show and sometimes watch it, by reading the closed captions, while I am exercising at my Lifetime Fitness center.)
Oprah holds up almost all of her guests as “prophets.” She clearly has the power to summon the most learned authorities on any subject. But again and again she “puts herself and her trusting audience in the hands of celebrity authors and pop-science artists pitching wonder cures and miracle treatments that are questionable or flat-out wrong, and sometimes dangerous” (Newsweek).
One of the more shameless and sad Oprah moments, at least for me, was the appearance of former pastor and NAE president, Rev. Ted Haggard. Haggard appeared on the show with his wife. I watched in utter amazement as this “evangelical confessional” unfolded before millions of viewers. (The HBO documentary on Ted Haggard, done by Nancy Pelosi’s daughter, was more responsible television journalism but still a very one-sided and unbalanced account that made Haggard out to be a person somehow persecuted by his former elders.) The whole Ted Haggard episode, and the way he has presented himself after his fall, is a sad commentary on the kind of media-made confession that is prominent in evangelical circles. In reaction against the Catholic “private confession” we have developed an incredibly dangerous and spiritual misleading way to confess sin and speak about repentance and recovery. It is a veritable cottage industry in our ranks. Oprah taps into this need in strange ways, thus speaking to millions who I feel sure are Christians of some sort.
But evangelicals too often clean up their own sub-cultural mistakes by attacking each another in public. I associated this with Oprah in my previous piece (May 7). She makes an inviting target for evangelical prophets who want to show a sinister motive and connect her directly to the work of the devil. My sense is that there is nothing sinister about her at all. She is a “self-made American” if there ever was one. She is a truly great story. She sells well and people love her. There is a lot to like in Oprah but there is also enough to make us wary of whether she represents real virtue to the wider culture. (One could make the case that she sometimes opposes real virtue since she always takes the popular line on everything related to sexual morality!) The odd thing to me is that the very ministers who make an industry out of attacking celebrities like Oprah have a deep need to be celebrities in their own right. At least that’s how I see it.