The following is a truncated summary of:
O Sister, What Art Thou: Kathryn Lofton on the Religion of Oprah
By Genevieve Walker–
Published in The New York Review of Ideas
The article deals with the Oprah phenomenon as the propagation of a self-salvation Gospel. It consists of an extended interview with author Kathryn Lofton, and a review of her latest book, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon.
. . . Oprah––the magazine, the Book Club and all the products of Oprah Winfrey’s multimedia production company, Harpo––is bursting with indications of where Americans look for answers to life’s trials. Lofton argues that Oprah Winfrey acts as an authoritative guide, someone with a script for living a good life, without condemnation or perceived dogma. Lofton says, “This is a religion for those who don’t want to be religious, but want to feel revelation.”
And just how did Oprah become the purveyor of revelation for 48 million U.S. viewers? In Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, Lofton writes that the Oprah show was born at a ripe moment in American history. In the 1980s when Oprah first aired, Americans started buying self-help and Feng Shui books. By the ‘90s there were self-help sections in Barnes & Noble––it was a New Age marketplace. It was in the mid ‘90s that Winfrey declared her program, “Change Your Life TV.” It transcended its talk-show contemporaries, The Phil Donahue Show and Geraldo, and adopted New Age jargon. “Now our mission…is to use television to transform people’s lives, to make viewers see themselves differently, and to bring happiness and a sense of fulfillment into every home,” Winfrey said in 2001. The products of Harpo have a purpose––to make lives better.
Most importantly is the message of Oprah: the “gospel of you,” writes Lofton. The gospel of you goes like this: Winfrey says she is no different from her fans. From dirt poor, to rich and famous, anyone can do the same. When you’ve discovered this (by listening to Oprah) and become a successful person––inherent within us all––it’s time to spread the message to those who haven’t heard it yet. And, here’s how to get started: treat yourself to great shoes that will inspire you to walk to that job interview. Take out a loan, whatever it takes. Get the job. Become an executive who believes in herself; someone who has agency. Then, tell someone else to do the same, because it feels so good. Does the Bible inspire you to do that? Great. Just don’t let it hold you back. If the word God doesn’t sit right, use Spirit, or Universe.
This is Oprah Winfrey’s mission––to help her fans live their “best lives” and to discover their “inner fabulous.” What she preaches is a quest for the best you, as Lofton reiterates in a podcast interview with University of California Press (February 16th, 2011), “The good news is you! You’re amazing.”
It’s this spiritual mantra, consumed by millions, that Lofton writes is an indication of how religion shows up now. The religious present is not extremism, and it’s not post-religious, she argues. Religion is everywhere, even in the Oprah show, and it’s tied to consumerism. Oprah’s advice always comes with a little nudge to buy more stuff: “I believe in meditating in the tub with some very nice bath products,” Winfrey said in 2001 on the “Live Your Best Life Tour.” . . .
What interests Lofton is not Winfrey’s authority to choose books, but how the experience of reading them with her becomes a ritual. Lofton writes that every televised Book Club includes an “aha!” moment, when readers get how the book narrative can be used to change their lives, in her chapter “Reading Religiously,” in the Oprah Affect. And Lofton relates the ritualized “aha” moment to a “born again” experience. . . .
There are some who say religion no longer exists in the way we knew it before the turn of the 20th century. They say our actions and traditions are not tied to a belief in a higher power, and are not governed by religious law. This argument says we live in a secular era. Then there are those who say we live in a post-secular era, where religion is not gone, but has been re-integrated into our lives after our secular phase. But there is also the cultural preoccupation with self-help mantras and yoga that are examples of something undefined––spiritual maybe––or vaguely religious. Like living a life according to Oprah’s likes and dislikes. . . .