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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. kingofnb

    Oprah can I get a car PLeeeeeeeaaaaasssssseeee, I'll say I watched you, and loved your show, and you are messsiah, and all those good things, if I could just get a car, if not then I really didn't watch or care about your show for one second of one episode. I know I'm shallow, so what if I get a car.

    May 25, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
  2. Jules

    I've watched Oprah off and on when the topic was interesting to me. I, however, could not watch the last shows.
    Such an over the top display of egos like I've never seen, and I don't necessarily means Oprah's. Madonna,
    the Smith's(at least their precocious children didn't show up, maybe they did after I turned the channel), anyway
    the fawning was nauseating. The Lord hasn't returned yet and if he does, he won't need Rascal Flats to sing to
    him nor will he need Tom Cruise to give him kudos.

    May 25, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
  3. russ

    people that say oprah changed their lives need to get life. These days there are meds for everything except stupidity. Too bad. All oprah is a narcissist. She is an outlet for all her quests to display crap and feed it to stupid viewers and there is no shortage of those.

    May 25, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • Frogist

      @russ: Inspiration and will to make your life better comes from many different places. It's sad that you are too short-sighted to see that.

      May 25, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  4. Sandalwood

    She's a self-promoting racist. I can't even stand to look at her.

    May 25, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
  5. rnt

    messiah, my ASS!!!

    May 25, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  6. BigBear

    Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeease – the most self-serving, egotistical individual ever to appear on television. She should have watched the farewell shows from Johnny Carson and Phil Donohue to see what "CLASS" was. But wait who am I talking about? I forgot already.

    May 25, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • cecilia

      give it a rest – this is exactly what is wrong with this world – so many seem incapable of just saying something nice or keeping your dam mouth shut

      May 25, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • Frogist

      @cecilia: It does seem that the majority of comments supports what you're saying. From all the bile you would think she protested military funerals or bashed gay people instead of giving people gifts and asking them to read books.

      May 25, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  7. Chris

    Oprah was indeed influential. But I'm confused about the author–a religous history scholar–praising Oprah's role and crowning her a "messiah" and then saying the void she leaves will be filled by another "false messiah." Maybe she should go back to her history books and contemplate whether she is herself repeating history.

    May 25, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  8. infonomics

    Lofton sums: "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."

    Recasted: "the measure of her consequence is whether the world you occupy looks (looks = abstract hooey) more like hers than you know." Rhetorical nonsense ! Oprah's worth (the measure of her consequence) is based on me not knowing the world looks more like hers. Oprah's value, then, increases with my ignorance? Incidentally, during the 25 years that women have genuflected to Oprah, America has steadily declined, an irrefutable fact that seems to be diametric to her measured consequence and that of her disciples. My vitriol aside, let's salute Oprah, for without her, where else would her sheep graze?

    May 25, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
  9. Art

    While Oprah certainly did a lot of good, in the end the Oprah show was ultimately about Oprah.

    May 25, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • Fluffy the Gerbil of Doom

      So ? And what, you want it should be about Pee Wee Herman ?

      May 25, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
  10. flyonthewall

    Bye Oprah, see ya, adios, choa. Didn't watch your program don't see you as my Messiah. Have a nice life.

    May 25, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
  11. Julie

    I swear, I just don't get it...Oprah seems to me to be someone interested in her own fame and fortune. Everything "good" she does is orchestrated to get herself the most attention possible. She seems shallow, self-involved, loves the sound of her own voice, loves to be worshipped, and I believe she has lots of skeletons in the closet...a few come out from time to time.

    May 25, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • Hmmm....

      Her show is called Oprah. I'm not a Oprah "follower", but geez, you all make her out to sound like Hitler. She is a successful woman, who has her own show, loves to hear herself talk, doesn't always give selflessly, is more often than not – on the "me" train BUT ALSO needs the Lord just as much as you and I. She has done a lot for people, and hopefully through some of what she has done using her media presence, some may have come to know Jesus the true Messiah. God can and does work through anything...nothing goes wasted.

      May 25, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
  12. Unruellie

    People should give credit where credit is due. She's a genuinely good person who has tried to help as many people as she can. She's reached millions of women on a personal level that transcends the social class realm and reaches what most of her audience has in common...being a woman and a black one at that! I can't say I have ever watched one complete show but I can still acknowledge that she HAS done good.

    And if she's become filthy rich in the process....well hey....that's the American way.

    May 25, 2011 at 11:37 am |
  13. K

    Just because somebody doesn't think Oprah is the Messiah doesn't make them a hater. I think it's great all of the work she has done but had I had her money, I would like to think I would have done the same. I don't worship her and I have maybe watched her show once or twice and that's only because it was on at somebody else's house. I don't think anybody is going to hell by watching her show but I would watch worshipping her. She is only human afterall. As others on this board has said, there is only ONE Messiah and that is Jesus. For the non-believers, I guess we will see who's right in the end.

    May 25, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  14. 64slugirl

    Paragraph 19 says it all. The Oprah thing is likened to the belief in Jesus Christ and the offer of the gif of Faith. I believe...that Oprah has a Jesus complex and I never quite bought the similarity. Never been an Oprah fan for this reason and will not miss what I never accepted. I don't adore FALSE GODS.

    May 25, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • Julie

      Amen!

      May 25, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
  15. taylor

    Oprah being likened to a prophet or messiah is actually pretty accurate on a social level. Especially since most people take what she spouts as 'gospel' and not to be questioned. I enjoy her shows when I have an opportunity to watch them, but have been blessed to have not been sucked in to any television show's hype since Donahue back in the day! I did love his argumentative side! ;-p

    Overall, a lovely article except for the use of the term 'co-conspirator'. grrrrr....a conspiracy always involves more than one person, so using the term conspirator justifies itself as the person being one of at least a group of two. Using the term co-conspirator in redundant. One would think the editors would have caught this, but apparently not.

    May 25, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  16. Obama 2012

    Oprah!!!!!!!!!!!!

    May 25, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  17. Men Love Oprah Too

    Thanks Oprah, you changed my life

    May 25, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  18. You a Fool

    love me some Oprah

    May 25, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  19. Adelina

    I think Ms. Oprah made people falsely trust in themselves or trick to think there is sustainable goodness in humanity without providing reality or true hope. Having someone listen to you gives ease but no truth or definitely no cleansing. America's morality has gone back to the darkest darkness in the last 25 years.

    May 25, 2011 at 11:13 am |
    • Frogist

      @Adelina: If you can't see the power of someone who is a good listener to provide real hope, real ease and real change, I can only conclude you have no idea what you're talking about.

      May 25, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  20. hywd69

    BORING....TO MOST OF US MEN.....OPRAH WHO?????

    May 25, 2011 at 11:12 am |
    • Chicken Little

      Oprah Who Has About Three Billion Dollars More Than You.

      May 25, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
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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.