The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 15, No. 3 (Fall 2013)
Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.
Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 15.3 (Fall 2013). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.
In this stimulating and at times surprising book, Kathryn Lofton begins with the premise that to talk of Oprah and religion is inevitably to blur the line between the sacred and profane, the divine and the mundane, the icon and the product. But from the first words—“What is Oprah? A noun. A name. A misspelling.”—to the epilogue on the “Oprahfication of Obama,” the reader gets the distinct impression that this is a line that Lofton, a professor of religious studies at Yale, enjoys blurring. Rather than a straightforward exposé, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon is what Lofton calls a “performance ecology.” This approach takes a cultural phenomenon like Oprah bit by bit, evaluating and at times admiring the imperviousness of each aspect of Oprah’s self-presentation to flat description or breezy dismissal.
The joy Lofton takes in unveiling her subject’s performative talent is revealed, in part, through her description of Oprah—the big O, Harpo Inc., The Oprah Winfrey Show, Oprah.com, O magazine, and so on—as a “way to survive the secular.” Lofton is not referring to religion’s absence from contemporary life but instead the cultural conditions undergirding the “kaleidoscopic buffet” of contemporary religious and spiritual life. This is important, Lofton suggests, because Oprah’s value to so many people (therapeutic and otherwise) illustrates what she calls “the inseparability of consumer choice and religious option” that marks our current moment.
This inseparability is demonstrated in the six chapters that form the heart of the book. In each, Lofton seeks to put an aspect of Oprah’s life and work into dialectical relation to a recognizable feature of religion in such a way that it will elucidate both. She shows how Oprah “preaches prosperity gospel, advocates books as scripture, offers exegesis, conducts exculpatory rites, supplies a bazaar of faithful practices, and propagates missions both home and foreign.” What is most intriguing about Lofton’s approach, however, is the way she uses thick description to make the case for the inseparability of religious life from consumer choice.
Consider two examples: one on the place of economics in contemporary religious life, the other on Oprah’s role in the flattening out of deep difference in our age. Early on, Lofton asserts that “the long story of free markets in the West deposits us at the door of Oprah Winfrey.” She provides a quick primer on the relationship of many megachurches to the get-rich promises of the prosperity gospel. This connection helps illuminate what Lofton describes as Oprah’s “sleight of hand: She endorses some modes of theological existence but condemns many more. For her, religion implies control and oppression and the inability to catalog shop. The only way religion—and religious belief—works for Oprah is if it is safely couched within a girl-power democracy and capitalist pleasure.” Lofton never fails to remind us that Oprah’s skill as a shrewd capitalist is matched only by her willingness to commodify herself. “Within the hyperrealism of celebrity consumption,” Lofton writes, “the appeal of Oprah is that she has absorbed so many flashbulbs that she has surpassed their glare. Or, perhaps more exactly, she has become such a consumer of herself that there is nothing the bulbs can capture that she has not already made [into a] commodity.”
Later, in an equally astute analysis, Lofton claims that “If Charles Finney was pastor to nineteenth-century America, it is not an overstatement to suggest that Winfrey is his twenty-first-century parallel.” Recalling Finney’s “anxious bench,” where the sinner was called to confess, repent, receive God’s restoring grace, and be restored to a rightful place in the community, Lofton argues that a basic revivalist-style script of confession and rejuvenation lies at the heart of Oprah’s interviews. Oprah’s gift is “not her interviewing strategy but her confessional promiscuity.” In their encounters with Oprah, guests are brought from a nagging sense of unfulfillment in their quotidian existences to an encounter that reveals some intimate truth. This, in turn, produces humiliation but ultimately some degree of self-acceptance and even social re-integration. It is Finney’s anxious bench, albeit on national TV.
Just as there were nineteenth-century detractors from Finney’s revivalism, so today there are those who resist its current iteration. In her careful reading of the recently disgraced evangelist Ted Haggard’s unwillingness to keep to Oprah’s script, Lofton illuminates a crucial feature of therapeutic religion—namely, its insistence on the infallible efficacy of its bland and banal nostrums. In response to the question of why, after repeated extramarital affairs with other men had come to light, Haggard could not simply make peace with his homosexuality, Haggard defied Oprah’s comprehension by insisting on the spiritual obligation to resist temptation. Unwilling to bow to the pressures of her anxious bench, Haggard deflated Oprah’s “ritual process.” Importantly, Lofton points to this failure as representative of an essential feature of our current moment. “By his evangelical God, he [Haggard] is told to be with his wife. By his Oprah, he’s told to be true, be merry, and be gay. The space between the two,” Lofton continues, “is the dialectic of religion in an age described, too easily and flatly, as a secular one.”
To put Oprah forward as a quasi-religious phenomenon that can be looked through in order to see more deeply into our current malaise is not simply, Lofton suggests, to challenge certain reigning orthodoxies concerning the study of religion. More interestingly, perhaps, it compels us to examine the adequacy of the strategies of survival available to us in this, our secular age.