It is now a week after the final broadcast of the Oprah show. In the last twenty five years, Miss Winfrey has become a cultural Tsunami, a socially acceptable mammy figure who named a magazine (and puts herself on every single cover!) and a television network after herself, gives away her favorite books, baubles and even once gave away a whole studio audience worth of cars. I was never Oprah's biggest fan and couldn't even tell you if I have watched a single episode from start to finish. But one thing I did notice in my occasional forays into O-land was that, at one point or other, every single episode seemed to turn into a personal therapy session. In front of a studio audience and recorded for later broadcast, but still a personal therapy session. Nothing was out of bounds and nothing was ever, ever criticized unless it was "mean".
Perhaps if I had understood what Oprah was tapping into, I might have been a bigger fan. But in the last several years, she seemed increasingly removed from the life of her average audience member and certainly didn't understand the women who chose freely to live a life different from the lifestyles she found acceptable. One needs only recall her astonishment at the fresh-faced and positively glowing with joy Dominican sisters who had to explain, more than once, that no, they don't ever have sex and yes, that is just fine. In fact, it is good and right. Yes, one needs only recall that program to know Oprah's philosophical commitments had no connection whatsoever to Christianity even though she proclaims herself a Christian. Oprah may be the high priestess of the American woman's shared religion, but she is remarkably sheltered in ways that surprise.
In what was likely the last episode I may have watched all the way through was the October 2007 Lisa Ling investigation into India's womb rental business. To counter questions of exploitation, Ling said the experience is actually "transformative" despite the stigma that is attached to surrogacy in India. And the money these mothers receive often does provide for a material transformation of their lives -- it is usually enough to buy a house for their family. In a spectacular lack of awareness, however, Oprah offered not a word of criticism for a practice in which wealthy white westerners pay poor women of color for the use of their bodies. How she could see this as anything but the exploitation of women of color is beyond comprehension.
This is not terribly surprising, though, since Oprah's gospel is one of mutual consent, makes no negative judgments and is an echo of the Wiccan Rede: Do what thou wilt an it harm none. Despite her babbling about a god-shaped-hole-in-the-soul and her openness to something called "spirituality" -- not despite, actually, because of this, she despises Christian dogma. She would laugh at Dorothy L. Sayers' truism that, "the dogma is the drama". Rather, in the religion of Oprah, the will is the only dogma and the only drama is the therapy worked out in public view.
What is disappointing about the aftermath of the Oprah tsunami, as her influence continues to spread out into the culture via her magazine, website and cable television network, is the reaction of Christian women bloggers. One Evangelical blogger called her post, "Filling the Oprah Void" as if candy floss spirituality can leave a void needing to be filled. "Oprah understood the power of speaking truth as a method of healing". Really? Shades of Anita Hill's lie-filled campaign to "speak truth to power" rise. I can't recall Oprah speaking a single truth on anything other than mundane matters such as how diet can relate to physical health and which pajamas are the most comfortable. But on matters that involved healing? There isn't a snowball's chance in that very warm place that she brought anyone to healing by speaking truth. Oprah doesn't know the truth on eternal matters.
Another Evangelical blogger quoted singer Beyonce`, "Because of you, women everywhere have graduated to a new level of understanding of what we are, of who we are . . ." The blogger then goes on to warn us against sitting on the sidelines and criticizing Oprah for her flawed theology because, you see, Oprah is moving forward where the church still lags behind the world - in telling girls they matter, no one should change their beliefs and that they can run the world!
Apparently the church IS lagging behind in something - in catechism, in discipleship, in mentoring and teaching and passing on the faith to the next generation. How else to explain Evangelical Christian bloggers lamenting the Oprah-shaped hole in their lives? How else to explain the celebration of Oprah's ability to raise difficult topics, despite the fact that she never offered the right cure, the cure leading to repentance and belief. The world's gurus have often been able to tap into the emotional needs of the world. From Leo Buscaglia to John Bradshaw the world's gurus have been very good at tapping into the culture's felt, emotional needs. But, like Oprah, because they operated with faulty anthropology as well as false theology they only succeeded in diagnosing the symptoms, never the underlying disease -- and never offered a true cure.
For those of us who know the source of all healing, there will be no Oprah-shaped void, no lamentations about her absence and no bookshelves filled with the works of her recommended "therapists". Life will go on. And even though her influence has dispersed into the culture (note: that is not a good thing), there will be less frank irritation with, "Did you see Oprah yesterday?". There will also be much more work for us to do. Oprah may have been the wealthiest and most famous high priestess of the American woman's religion, but she was only one. Perhaps I should not have joked about Oprah as the Second Beast, the False Prophet in a previous blog post. The humour might have been closer to the truth than we would like to admit.