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My Take: How Oprah became a messiah
Oprah Winfrey in Pasadena, California in January.
May 25th, 2011
09:14 AM ET

My Take: How Oprah became a messiah

Editor's Note: Kathryn Lofton teaches U.S. religious history at Yale University and is the author of Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, published by the University of California Press.

By Kathryn Lofton, Special to CNN

For some people, the end of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" today is no big deal. As one colleague said to me recently, “I am never home at 4 p.m. and I don’t want to hear about people’s feelings. Why should I care?”

Why should he? Television shows come and go. Celebrities rise and fall. This moment will disappear as soon as the next one hits the headlines, and even the most famous woman in the world will be eventually forgotten.

Commentary: My last 'Oprah Winfrey Show'

But I am a historian of religion, so it is my job not only to remember the forgotten, but to observe what is repeated from our past in the present. For a long time, I have been focused on the ways the Oprah empire resembles a religion in modern society.

Rarely do scholars now use the word cult. When we do, we use it to label small groups with a discrete set of ritual practices.

Religion, by contrast, describes something larger—larger in numbers and larger in scope. Religion is a word that captures how social groups imagine themselves relative to superhuman powers. The Oprah show broadcasted to 145 countries, telling people not only what lipstick to use and what book to read, but also what better world to conceive.

Unlike her original talk show competitors, Oprah’s show seemed always to be bent upon a higher power. This became an explicit program change in the mid-1990s.

When Oprah went to Amarillo, Texas in 1998 to testify in her defense against the cattlemen who sued her for allegedly defaming the beef industry, she was asked a series of questions meant to imply that she had sensationalized the news.

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She explained later that the experience made her realize that she must become a tool for good in the world: “I’ve been guilty of doing trash TV and not thinking it was trash.” Her spiritual revelation was converted into a corporate makeover that re-branded her show as “Change Your Life TV.”

Episodes included two-minute spots like “Remembering Your Spirit,” featuring inspirational testimonials from celebrities and everyday folk on how they learned to live a more spiritual life. Winfrey started to invite self-help authors like Gary Zukav and spiritual leaders such as Marianne Williamson for entire episodes about their teachings.

Initial responses to her programming change were largely negative, with some suggesting that her move to “Change Your Life TV” was “too evangelical.”

She addressed the criticism head-on.

“It’s a shame that we’ve evolved into the kind of society where evangelical is considered negative,” she said after the start of her 1998-1999 season. “I have come to believe that we are all, or at least most of us, searching for the assurance that good exists in our world, even in the midst of evil and evil abuse.”

For religious historians, Oprah’s disavowal of critics is a familiar maneuver. Religious leaders often suggest that the words you use to insult them are precisely the terms of their power.

Rather than disagree with naysayers, Oprah merely asks why you aren’t on board. Aren’t we all worried about evil? Don’t we all want the good?

In an era in which religion was increasingly portrayed as either idiotic or extremist, Oprah plotted a middle way in which her viewers could be both believers and critics, both consumers and missionaries. She criticized religious institutions on her show but she encouraged spiritual practices. She encouraged everyone to buy her favorite things but also to offer the gift of themselves to the world.

To be sure, Oprah’s message focused on a particular audience. Women disproportionately found comfort in the set of problems Oprah introduced as hers (and, therefore, yours).

Yet it is important to note that her corporate makeover increased not only her spiritual consequence for women around the world, but also her profit margin. Beyond the show’s new look and focus, she began to develop her brand, including, eventually, her book club, magazine, web site and her Angel Network. Her spiritualization enhanced her media incorporation.

In a recent interview, Winfrey disavowed the intensity of her Change Your Life TV message.

“Do not tell people you're gonna change their life,” she told her best friend and co-conspirator Gayle King in this month’s O magazine. “You want to be able to offer that, but it’s up to them if they choose to receive it.”

Over time, Winfrey developed a careful programming slate that seemed less overt in its converting ambitions. She invited fewer and fewer spiritual advisers, for example.

But as the star of her own spiritual transformations, she was eventually able to provide any answer to any problem. If contemporary authors caused her troubles, she turned to her bookshelf for classic authors to discuss. If American students seemed disinterested in her uplift, she turned to Africa to start a school. Her spirit became increasingly articulated as a global phenomenon.

As she departs from her ritual slot, there will be a vacuum for some. Yet if history has taught us anything, it is that the void will not be left gaping for long. “The false messiah is as old as the hope for the true Messiah,” wrote Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig. “He is the changing form of this changeless hope.”

Oprah represented humanity’s ceaseless interest in spiritual responses to personal problems. We now live in her world: one of first-person confessions, required makeovers, and spiritual consumption.

The measure of her consequence will be not in whether or not she mattered to you, but whether the world you occupy looks more like hers than you know.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kathryn Lofton.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Christianity • Opinion • TV

soundoff (143 Responses)
  1. GenXfactor

    She is a messiah...look up the definition of messiah if you doubt this. Jesus, the greatest messiah, was also criticized by the masses...no, Oprah is not Jesus, BUT she is most relevant. Nobody is suggesting that Oprah is perfect...but who is? She tries to spread positive vibes around the world...she does the work of Jesus. Oprah is one for the ages...CONGRATULATIONS OPRAH ON 25 YEARS.

    May 25, 2011 at 11:12 am |
    • ComeOnMan9

      baby please put down the crack pipe.

      May 25, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • alsmeer1

      oprah is no messiah or prophet. she is a liberal who has won people over. very much pushing the worldly lifestyles.
      I am glad I never got hooked on listening to her. she pushed her beliefs thru her 'guests' she is really nothing. thought she was something because she is rich.
      no thank you.
      I will stick with the true Messiah, Jesus Christ.

      May 25, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • Alive in Christ

      Oprah does NOT do the work of Jesus!!!! Oprah actually denied Jesus. She claims that Jesus is not the only way to get to heaven. Claiming that there is access to heaven asides from Jesus is denying that He is THE SAVIOUR!!!! Shes misleading millions and millions of people with this new age garbage that she pushes on the show. She's lost. Its actually very sad, because she may be enjoying the spoils of her good fortune and "good deeds", but its so short lived when compared to eternity for those that do believe in THE CHRIST, JESUS!!!!!

      June 5, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  2. John Richardson

    I'm firmly in the "no messiah" camp, but also agree that if you are looking around for one, Oprah is a ludicrous choice.

    May 25, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  3. Quantum Gravitational Fluctuation

    Great article Dr. Lofton.
    I only watched a couple minutes of the "liturgy" that unfolded the past few days on her show, but I was thinking exactly the same thing, as the lighted candles and music, (even Amazing Grace), played out, apparently for DAYS, to honor her. Before I clicked on the comments here I predicted at least five of the below, correctly. I KNEW they were going to be hollering about "she is going to hell for even thinking she is the messiah" etc.,etc.,etc. It's a METAPHOR people. Lofton is not that stupid. You need to stop talking in literal terms, and understand what "mythology" is all about.
    Ironic that one writer says women have nothing in common with her, (listing her asset ballance etc.). It is precisely THAT, their common humanity, which attracted people to her, and not the absence of offspring, or a legally bound spouse.
    (Anyway, even if some were to stand and watch, as they "did it", they would still not believe Stedman and she were a couple). To think that these things make this human somehow essentially "other", because she has, (or no)t, some things, is an example of the American celebration of celebrity, believing that these people are essentially and substantially different, just because they are on TV. What I liked about the few shows I watched was that she never told people how they had to think. She suggested sometimes, but mostly let people make up their own minds.
    In any case she has and will do more good, in her support for her schools, than anyone who has and will post a comment on this board today.

    May 25, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • You truly live under a rock.

      Wow. Just wow. I finally have met a real person who does actually live under a rock. I find it funny how you try to insult those who can see through her facade of caring and call a spade a space. Is it because you too were bamboozled? She is a fake. A charlatan. A con artist. She PLAYED America.

      Also, you know NO ONE on this board. I personally know people who sacrifice decades to care for animals, the homeless, drug addicts etc.. she was on TV for 25 years and PAID OTHERS TO HELP. She did squat other than show her fat face around. Did SHE actually build anything? Did SHE go around to shelters and get her hands dirty to help others? Give me a break. You need a serious reality check. At the end of it all, you will still most likely go back to your empty life without a single clue of why you are here, why mankind is even here, and what is the purpose of it all. Pathetic.

      May 25, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • Quantum Gravitational Fluctuation

      @You truly live under a rock.
      Thanks for that. You can, if you like, read the post again, and you will see I insulted no one, but thanks for the lesson in that activity. If I think about doing that elsewhere , I will reference yours and a good "how to".
      I don't care if she PAID anyone to do it, at least she did something. You said you "know" people who do things. My point stands, I guess, She did do more than YOU will ever do.
      I do not know anyone, that I am aware of on her board, but those I do know on the boards on which I serve, all "pay" others, to assist in our causes and activities, which include some of those you list, because that is the only way to make use of our vast resources and limited time.

      May 25, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  4. Adelina

    Again, Americans are bored. The whole world knows it. A great empire dying from self-imposed stupidity.

    May 25, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • You people are pathetic!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      Wow. I have never seen such rabid stupidity than Oprah fans. How did this happen? Most Americans can't stand black women but this cow is worshipped why again? Because she is filthy rich? She offers nothing in the way of solid advice and to even compare her to Jesus , the Greatest Teacher who ever lived on this earth is disgusting. HE gave concrete solid counsel for everyone to follow and find real success. What has this idiot done?

      May 25, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • Frogist

      "most americans can't stand black women" Wow that wasn't racist at all.

      May 25, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • Adelina

      I only meant the stupidity of calling Oprah a messiah. She wasn't "anointed" and is a woman and not a Jew.

      May 25, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • Chicken Little

      Open that box hun. Even just a crack. There's a big world out there.

      May 25, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  5. GenXfactor

    HATERS

    May 25, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • You truly live under a rock.

      Typical nonsense rresponse. I hate when people throw the word HATERS whenever someone simply disagrees or dare say the TRUTH about the fact that shes a fake.

      May 25, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • Chicken Little

      @You truly live under a rock.
      Ya, you betcha. She's a 3 billion dollar fake.
      Go to 110 N. Carpenter St., Chicago, and knock on the door. I guarantee she's not a fake.
      Oh, speaking of 'haters", you seem to be doing a good bunch of that too on here today.

      May 25, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  6. Brad

    Having Oprah or any other name other than Jesus Christ as your "Messiah" is having no Messiah at all.

    May 25, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • Jesus Abandons Religion and Learns the Banjo

      No messiah at all is the only sane, intelligent option.

      May 25, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • Adelina

      Messiahship is only possible with fulfilled prophecies. The Bible-illiterate America has no future.

      May 25, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • ProTruth

      Amen Brad.

      May 25, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  7. Extremophil

    I think I'm gonna PUKE!!

    May 25, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • Janet Beano

      Me too. People are so stupid.

      May 25, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  8. ivory67

    This article exemplifies the reason I do not care for Oprah and don't watch her show. Women idolize her and for what reason? The majority of women have nothing in common with her. She's never been married, has no children, is a billionaire, etc. Yet women sit around with gaping mouths taking in all of her "wisdom." If someone tells me they watch Oprah, they go down about 10 notches in my mind. What a waste of time. (oh, and I'm a woman... one who doesn't need Oprah telling me how to live)

    May 25, 2011 at 10:29 am |
    • ComeOnMan9

      How do you say, how do you say without being rude. It is a, uh, particular segment of women who worship this woman and we appear to live in different worlds.

      May 25, 2011 at 11:08 am |
    • alsmeer1

      amen to that ivory! I couldnt agree more.

      May 25, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • Shes a smart idiot

      Oprah is a smart business woman. Why? She left off average people in the early 90's with real stories and started appeasing to white middle america with her fruit loop guest stars touting their latest self-help books. These rich white women believe in all that crap from Parenting Magazine and other garbage books like Eat, Poop, Die and other stuff and yet they are the ones with the with little 'Johnny' making bombs in the basement . DUMB DUMB DUMB.

      May 25, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  9. OldMo

    If you follow Oprah's new age b.s. doctrine you're not going to like where you spend eternity. I'm glad she's leaving because now she'll have less chances to influence impressionable pople. BTW, this "messiah" is going to have a lot to answer for on Judgement Day if she doesn't humble herself and come correct.

    May 25, 2011 at 10:26 am |
    • ComeOnMan9

      Tell it like it is before it get like it aint.

      May 25, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • Brad

      I coudn't agree more OldMo.

      May 25, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • jim

      You appear to have been influenced by something far more sinister and destructive than Oprah. Oprah's show is just inane, your obsession is insane.

      May 25, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • Jesus Abandons Religion and Learns the Banjo

      Are you kidding? You think that people who watch Oprah are going to hell? That's utterly hilarious! And very Christian.

      If my kids watch SpongeBob, are they going to hell or purgatory?

      What would Jesus watch?

      May 25, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • Steve (the real one)

      Jesus Abandons Religion and Learns the Banjo
      Are you kidding? You think that people who watch Oprah are going to hell? That's utterly hilarious! And very Christian.
      If my kids watch SpongeBob, are they going to hell or purgatory? What would Jesus watch?
      --------
      That is NOT what OldMo said. Read it again. What was stated is IF you follow her new age doctrine. Nothing was said about watching her show.

      May 25, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Alive in Christ

      AMEN, OLDMO!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      June 5, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  10. jona

    stooopid.

    May 25, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  11. Dan

    Everyone is a critic. Sheesh! Cant peopl egiev her credit for all the good she has done.!

    what have you done lately? Probally not a whole lot- and nothing compared to Oprah's deeds. She is strong impactful- woman to go down in the history books- long agter shes gone. The world is a better place because of her efforts.

    May 25, 2011 at 10:24 am |
  12. Fidei Coticula Crux

    RE: “In an era in which religion WAS increasingly portrayed as either idiotic or extremist, Oprah plotted a middle way in which her viewers could be both believers and critics, both consumers and missionaries.”

    Kathryn Lofton it is apparent you are not aware of the current Anti-Religion Secular Movement. The word should be “IS” not “WAS.”

    May 25, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  13. dirtyharry1971

    Messiah? Really? To who? I will tell you who, middle aged women thats who because i never once came across a straight male who watched this garbage. The world is a better place starting tomorrow, thank god she is gone!! YES!!!

    May 25, 2011 at 10:22 am |
    • Oprah is a sellout who SELLS OUT

      Bravo. She has done what any manipulative scuzzy business person would do in America: Appease the white rich women who are at-home moms.

      She has guests who look cute and say a bunch of fruity empty things and people giving them standing O's. Do any of those idiots offer anything REAL and concrete to follow? NO. They say things to tickle people's ears. Make them feel all warm and fuzzy inside for half a minute. She is no where near on the level of Jesus. His Sermon on the Mount changes lives and helps people regardless of social or economic standing. Things like 'keeping your eye simple' in regards to material things which lessen stress in life.

      But no, Oprah would NEVER encourage that. She wants to get PAID! People are truly suckers.

      May 25, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  14. Karen

    This is a poorly-written article. Assertions without evidence. Ex. Why did Oprah lessen her emphasis on spirituality? Sentences nonsensical. Ex. "The words you use to insult them are precisely the terms of their power." What does this even mean? Article has a point about Oprah's apotheosis, but fails to achieve its goal.

    May 25, 2011 at 10:22 am |
  15. mb2010a

    A gay Messiah...not exactly a new concept, been done before. She is an evangelical, yes...a Messiah, no. Also one of the richest women in America.

    May 25, 2011 at 10:22 am |
  16. PraiseTheLard

    She was quoted saying “I’ve been guilty of doing trash TV and not thinking it was trash.”

    I'm afraid that nothing had changed... as H. L. Mencken said: "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public."

    May 25, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  17. The Further Adventures of No-No Bad Dog

    Very lame article. Either CNN was desperate for content, or the editor who okayed it is a religious dingbat with a massive addiction to anti-depressants and painkillers.

    May 25, 2011 at 10:15 am |
    • Dan

      you have no soul.

      May 25, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • The Further Adventures of No-No Bad Dog

      Nobody has a soul, dumb-dumb. That's just another scientifically unsupportable snake-oil fantasy that religion has dumped on the gullible masses.

      May 25, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • TRUE FAITH DOES NOT LOOK LIKE OPRAH

      There are many falsely called 'messiahs' out there. That May 21st doomsdayer is one and people who actually worship this Oprah, are another. True faith improves a person's life through following time-tested and trustworthy biblical truths. The REAL Messiah did not share his advice for a price through selling books or concerts or anything like that.

      May 25, 2011 at 11:47 am |
  18. Rick

    OMG! PEOPLE GET A LIFE.
    How Oprah became a messiah.....KATH, FOR AN EDUCATED WOMEN YOU SURE ARE IGNORANT.

    May 25, 2011 at 10:11 am |
  19. Jeff

    Let's not forget that while she was busy "changing people's lives" she was also busy enriching her own

    May 25, 2011 at 10:08 am |
    • Unruellie

      That's the American way:D

      May 25, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • Betty Boob

      I would really like an Oprah fan to tell me SPECIFICALLY how Oprah changed their life. Give me specifics. I think there are none. She is an instant gratification for people who have empty lives and more money than they know what to do with.

      May 25, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  20. LogicGuru

    Puke. How can anyone tolerate this sentimental, do-good, goody-goody crap? It's all the bad stuff of religion–niceness, smarm and endless obligation to help, help, help people and work to make a Better World–with none of the good stuff: mysticism, ceremony and art, contact with another world. I'm serious. This spirituality is nauseating, smarmy, sickening–what on earth do people see in it?

    May 25, 2011 at 9:58 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.