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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. Peacemaker

    I am always amazed by the number of so-called-Christians who judge and condemn, in this case, someone like Oprah Winfrey.

    Last I heard judgement is exclusively GOD's! Oprah is a kind, generous soul, she will be judge like the rest of us. I thank GOD that the so-called-Christians blogging hate here wont be judging!

    June 3, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  2. brad7watson4miami

    Oprah is "a messiah", but not "the Messiah" – she'll be the first to tell you that. The Bible states that the return of the Christ is marked with "his producing a 'book/scroll' that only he can receive from the 'right hand of God' that has on the cover the '7 seals'." I've produced this and the "7 seals" are 'beyond Einstein theories'. Google that or see 7seals.yuku.com

    – Brad Watson, Miami

    June 3, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  3. RightturnClyde

    When I read "My Take: How Oprah became a messiah" and the author's credentials are that she teaches *U.S. religious history at Yale University * then I realize how fortunate it was for me that I went to Loyola University of Chicago (Jesuit). If Kathryn Lofton is any indication of what is happening at Yale and Harvard and Princeton then those degrees are a waster of precious time and money. I suspect that *U.S. religious history * in one of those courses offered to students who cannot pass algebra 101. So they will receive a degree in something like sociology including this kind of course and 6 hours credit for working as a cashier in a gas station.

    May 31, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • Jennifer Line

      U.S. religious history allows its students to better understand the religious landscape of the world they live in–and how that landscape developed. Oprah certainly deployed religious language and ideologies to reach her viewers. Studying religion, wherever it appears, can help students build more educated perspectives on culture and politics. If we allow celebrities and other pop culture phenomena to pass without scrutiny–in favor of studying only conventionally "established" religious traditions–we will miss an enormous opportunity to understand ourselves and religion in general.

      May 31, 2011 at 8:32 pm |
    • RightturnClyde

      It would serve them well if the learned how to remain married long enough for their kids to become adults. It would help them to learn the landscape of productivity so they could make their way in the world (instead of protracted unemployment and under employment for decades after graduation). It would help if they learned to be responsible enough to pay their mortgages and be able to honor their obligations (marital, parental and financial). Many talk show hosts talk about religion (it is nothing new .. Jack Paar did it) and they talk about politics and cars and vacation spots. There was a radio station in Del Rio Texas that would sell a statue of Jesus that glowed in the dark (on your dashboard) ... that did not make it a religion.

      June 1, 2011 at 1:32 am |
  4. dirtyharry1971

    The end of oprah is here, today is the start of something great as we start a new ERA that i call "Oprah free" and its going to be a wonderful time. oprah is now i the past, time to move onto greener pastors in our lives now that the witch is gone!!

    May 26, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • Adelina

      @D-H-1971, I don't think Oprah is what you describe. Britain and America do have plenty popular individuals who fit the descriptions of "Babylon" that appears in Revelation, though.

      May 26, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
  5. Adelina

    If Oprah is called a messiah, that shows such Americans' cheapness and serious idiocy.

    May 26, 2011 at 4:33 am |
    • RightturnClyde

      Indeed it does. Worse it reveals how shallow Yale and other top universities have become. [I think those courses are for students who cannot pass normal coursework - the ones who did poorly in failing H.S. ] .. There used to be a radio station in Del Rio that sold religious junk (Plastic Jesus) .. it was pure Americana but nobody thought it was religion (or Messiah). It beamed up into the Midwest in the early morning hours and all the kids heard it (and laughed) .. but we got married in a church and baptized our kids in a church. (we did not make them listen to Wolfman Jack).

      June 1, 2011 at 9:41 am |
  6. Faux Paws

    Oh for heaven's sake.
    The article does not say she is THE Messiah, it says she's "a messiah", (translation : a messianic, or messiah-like figure). If the readers of this articles cannot even translate that literary device in their brains, is it any wonder that they are unable to make sense of other more complex culturally distant texts. The lights went on. OMG.

    May 25, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • EJ

      Is your semantics based debate in defense of Oprah? The point being made is that Oprah's following has
      gradually, willfully, and enthusiastically traded their own intuition, instincts, interests, and individuality in order
      to delegate life's decisions and way of life to a dangerously narcissistic and elitist megalomaniac.

      May 26, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  7. Hmmm....

    The author isn't claiming Oprah as The Messiah, but like a messiah - a god and in some sense a savior to this world. What the author is saying is correct in the context of those who do love and adore her and have adopted this O-religion. She does have followers whether or not you find your are one of them or not. Bottom line is, she has played a huge role in today's world and many do think the way she does. The author I believe is provoking not a discussion of the validity of Oprah as a messiah but to see what society has come to embrace as a means of reaching out and accepting as their "savior" and messiah. There is a lot of work to be done. I think the author did well to speak her opinion and state what she has observed of Oprah and her "power", without degrading or devaluing Oprah as a person. The world is longing for the Messiah...but many still have yet to find what will truly fill them. The Messiah is for everyone, including Oprah. I hope one day her life becomes not about a personal kingdom, but about the Kingdom...using her influences to point to Christ.

    May 25, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • michael

      Very well stated.

      May 26, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  8. Reality

    Oprah as a messiah??

    Winfrey's support for abortion negates that real quick. She is simply another member of the Immoral Majority, those 76+ million "mothers and fathers" of slain growing babies who put BO in the White House and will do so again in 2012 with the help of Winfrey's support and money.

    And all because 76+ million "women and men" either forgot to take their daily Pill or left their condoms in their pocket. No Respect-for-Life candidate has a chance in 2012.

    What BO can do to at least lift part of the Immoral Majority leader label?

    He says abortions should be "safe, legal and rare" but says nothing about the basic tenet of proper human conduct i.e. Thou Shalt Not Kill. And where is BO's sense of indignation that abortions are not rare and that these acts of horror demean the Golden Rule considering that he says he is a Christian. And where is his sense of indignation that women who use the Pill do not use it properly resulting in an failure rate of 8.7% as per the Guttmacher Inst-itute statistics. Using these and other Guttmacher Insti-tute data, this failure of women to use the Pill properly results in ~1,000,000 unplanned pregnancies every year. And the annual abortion rate in the USA is?? ~1,000,000 as per the CDC.

    And do males use condoms properly? No, as said failure rate for this birth "control" method is 17.4%!! Again using Guttmacher data, said failure rate results in another ~1,000,000 unplanned pregnancies every year.

    The Guttmacher Inst-itute (same reference) notes also that the perfect use of the Pill should result in a 0.3% failure rate (35,000 unplanned pregnancies) and for the male con-dom, a 2% failure rate (138,000 unplanned pregnancies).

    May 25, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • EJ

      Perhaps you could provide your home address as to facilitate the process of delivering all of the unwanted children over to your house for you to raise? Abortion is dark, it's a disturbing topic, and it is improbable that a solution will ever exist on the issue. The fact of the matter is that the issue has to be handled by realists such as Obama, not idealists who are unable to accept that as a culture, moreover as the human race, we are not going to stop unplanned pregnancies. It is prim-ally impossible. Illegalize abortion....watch what happens. There will be dead fetuses and dead mothers everywhere. Reality rules.

      May 26, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Reality

      EJ,

      Obviously, you missed this:

      And where is his sense of indignation that women who use the Pill do not use it properly resulting in an failure rate of 8.7% as per the Guttmacher Inst-itute statistics. Using these and other Guttmacher Insti-tute data, this failure of women to use the Pill properly results in ~1,000,000 unplanned pregnancies every year. And the annual abortion rate in the USA is?? ~1,000,000 as per the CDC.

      And do males use condoms properly? No, as said failure rate for this birth "control" method is 17.4%!! Again using Guttmacher data, said failure rate results in another ~1,000,000 unplanned pregnancies every year.

      May 26, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
  9. David Johnson

    Well, at least Oprah isn't big on the baby Jesus. That is refreshing.

    Cheers!

    May 25, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
  10. boocat

    She's a talk show host............BIG DEAL!!!!!!

    May 25, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
  11. Mr. X

    Oh look, another dumb idiot who thinks Orca is a messiah. Please get some help.

    May 25, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  12. Hmmm....

    While I too wish she would have refrained from labeling herself as a Christian because she herself has said she doesn't believe Jesus is the only way - I also wish that all the harsh negativity in these comments from other self-professing Christians were brought down to a simmer. If I were Oprah reading these comments, I just might stop referring to myself as a Christian; not because you have convinced me that I'm not living up to your definition of one, but because I'd be so turned off by the behavior and example many on here have set as one.

    May 25, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • John Richardson

      Hahaha!!! Now an Oprahite is using the Christians' favorite tool against them!

      Yeah, you mean Christians! How dare you express your disdain for this over-the-top appellation!!!

      May 25, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
    • Hmmm....

      an Oprahite? I think I'm failing to understand your comment. I'm not really sure how to respond given that I don't fully get what your implying. Should I be offended? I do not disdain Christians or Oprah as a person. I don't agree with most of what Oprah says. I think that the point of Lofton's article is being missed.

      May 26, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  13. wasa

    for related news you might be interested in -
    http://www.christianpost.com/news/spiritual-leader-oprah-winfrey-says-farewell-to-daytime-talk-50482/

    May 25, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
  14. Sancha

    Oprah,

    You are welcome.

    Sincerely,
    Phil Donahue

    May 25, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  15. Iaintbuyingit

    You gotta be kidding!! Anyone who thinks that Oprah and her show changed or led people away from God, not religion, is totally confused that she ever had that power. I cannot believe a "true" believer in God would be swayed by this pop culture phenom. I absolutely enjoyed her programming but I can tell you this, I didnt go out and consume as she suggested, nor was I swayed to read what she said I should read. That woman made people money that didnt do the work. She also made people into so called mental care professionals that had no business being, like Dr. Phil. What a quack. I guess the bottom line is, if you aspire to be and live like you see on T.V. or cable, you are already a gonner. I wish Oprah the best of luck.

    May 25, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • thefurious

      You're right. If someone was actually a faithful follower of Christ, mature in their faith, then yes, they would not have an issue with Oprah's sway. But for the less mature, people seeking, she has done them a great disservice.

      May 25, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
  16. gordon greenwood

    DIDNT SOMEONE CLOSE TO OPRAH EVER BRING UP THE IDEA OF OVERKILL WHAT EVER SHE MEANT TO PEOPLE WE ARE SICK OF SEEING HER HEARING HER TALK DOWN TO US AND ALL HER PSHYCO BABBLE THEIR IS NOT ONE OUNCE OF TALENT IN HER ENTIRE BEING NEVER HAD CHILDREN YET SHE IS AN EXPERT ON THE SUBJECT NEVER BEEN MARRIED BUT WILL TELL TOU HOW YOU SHOULD RUN YOUR MARRIAGE OPRAH HAS TAKEN YOU ALL FOR A BIG RIDE TO PHONYSVILLE SHE MAY HAVE FOOLED THE WEAK AND DOWNTRODDEN BUT TO US WITH JUST SLIGHTLY MORE AWARENENESS SHE DOESNT FOOL GO AWAY AND DONT COME BACK AND TELL US WHERE YOU HAVE BEEN

    May 25, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Please Stop Shouting

      Look down. Third key up on the left, from the bottom. Tap once.

      May 25, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  17. Sally

    She is certainly NOT a messiah – just a popular TV personality (to whom millions of people wonder?) that yes, donated to many charities.

    May 25, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  18. thefurious

    Regardless if you think religion should be banned or where you stand on eternal matters, one thing is certain about Oprah in relation to religion: She has drastically confused house mothers, spinsters and others about what it means to be a Christian. She has taken away salvation doctrine and added in her own, mystic, universalist theology and continued to call herself a Christian. She should have had the decency to at least not label herself as a Christian and confuse the impressionable and easily swayed 4:00pm TV viewers. Despite all the incredibly nice things she has done for people across the globe, according to Christian theology, she has led many people astray.

    May 25, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • Sally

      Bingo...Very well said..........

      May 25, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • Frogist

      LOL More Christian infighting!
      It is amusing that every article on this blog will have people duking it out over who is the "real" Christian. I wonder where each of you gets the authority to decide who is a Christian and who is not.

      May 25, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • thefurious

      Well. when the Bible says that Jesus Christ is the only way to eternal salvation and Oprah claims that there are many ways, theres a big issue there.

      May 25, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • thefurious

      And the Bible isn't grey on who a Christian is and what that entails. In a round about way: A Christian is a follower of Christ, following and obeying his teachings, accepts him as Lord of their life and so lives in such a way that is modeled after Him and seeks an intimate relationship with Him, above all else.

      May 25, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
  19. Frogist

    I was never big into Oprah. I watched when she had celebrities on sometimes. But I wasn't religious about it. I am still sort of in the dark as to why she has such a huge following although I know she does. I do know that she introduced me to Dr Phil who I can't stand. It's nice to see such a successful woman of colour tho.

    May 25, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • Dolce21

      Agree with you totally, and I can't stand Dr. Phil either. Oprah seems to think she can buy people with all the give aways, that people show up for!!

      May 25, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Dolce21: I don't know whether she thinks she can buy people with presents. That would mean I have insight into her mindset which I really don't. The gift giving thing seems actually really generous to me. I know she benefits by people wanting to go to her show. But how many other millionaires give gifts like that? Others have the forum. Others have the cash. But how many actually do that?

      May 25, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  20. Jen

    Love her, hate her, one thing remains. She has donated more money to charity than any of us will ever make in our lifetimes. It is NOT MANDATORY to donate your money or your time, and she has done both. Even if it was done to promote her brand, in the end, the money benefited the reciepients too.

    May 25, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • EJ

      Yes she sure as sh** has, hasn't she? And she told you about every last red cent of it.
      I give money away too, and time, and cards, and food, and...... well, you get the point.

      Trust that Oprah has not and will never allow her bank account shrink enough to
      even REMOTELY compromise her ability to fill her homes, or her lifestyle with "Oprah's
      favorite things". I suppose everything is gauged on your definition of generous. In my world
      being generous means that you're willing to give something up, no payback. Period.

      May 26, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • Evolved DNA

      EJ.. the Catholic church is the same way though.. gives lots of money to charities but its other peoples money..How many items have the CC sold off in order to fund programs ?

      May 31, 2011 at 3:04 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.