By Mark Oppenheimer, New York Times
“The Oprah Winfrey Show” ended Wednesday, bringing despair to booksellers who relied on her book club, television programmers who needed her ratings, and religion scholars who for a decade have tried explaining how this child of poverty became the leader of a worldwide cult. They have worked just as hard to define that cult, which is at once Christian and pantheistic, African-American in origin but global in reach.
Dr. Illouz, who teaches at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, found that elements of the black church, like its emotionality and focus on justice, “pervade ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show,’ which has taken on the vocation of relieving a multiplicity of forms of suffering through the use of speech infused with the rhetorical style of black preachers.”
While respecting Ms. Winfrey’s use of her Christian heritage, Dr. Illouz 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.
And like the best hellfire preachers, Ms. Winfrey could be merciless in exacting those confessions. “Guests are forced to admit their worst transgressions,” Dr. Lofton writes, “to say precisely how they felt when they pulled the trigger, for example, or, in Governor McGreevey’s case” — that is James E. McGreevey of New Jersey, who resigned after cheating on his wife and coming out as gay — “to describe the sordid locations of his clandestine sexual encounters.”
Yet the Church of Winfrey is at most partly Christian. Her show featured a wide, if drearily similar, cast of New Age gurus. As Karlyn Crowley writes in her contribution to “Stories of Oprah: The Oprahfication of American Culture,” an essay collection published last year, Ms. Winfrey excelled at offering “spiritual alternatives to the mainstream religions” in which many of her followers grew up. Ms. Winfrey presided over something like a “New Age feminist congregation,” Dr. Crowley writes.
That is a rather neutral way to put it. Oprah scholars excel, as many good scholars do, at withholding judgment, seeking to explain rather than praise or condemn. One wishes for a more critical eye. I, for one, found something cathartic in Dr. Illouz’s brief critique, when she called Ms. Winfrey “absurd” for “making suffering into a desirable experience.”
In her earnest spiritual seeking, Ms. Winfrey gave platforms to some rather questionable types. She hosted the self-help author Louise Hay,who once said Holocaust victims may have been paying for sins in a previous life. She championed the “medical intuitive” Caroline Myss, who claims emotional distress causes cancer. She helped launch Rhonda Byrne, creator of the DVD and book “The Secret,” who teaches that just thinking about wealth can make you rich. She invited the “psychic medium” John Edward to help mourners in her audience talk to their dead relatives.
“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.
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