It’s All about O

There are probably few people on this planet who haven't heard of Oprah Winfrey. Her media empire includes television, Internet, magazines, movies, and more. Viewers and readers look to Oprah for advice on everything from what clothes to buy to what charity to support to what self-help book to read. But does all this make Oprah a religious figure? Marcia Z. Nelson, a well-known writer on religion and spirituality, thinks it might. Nelson has written a book called The Gospel According to Oprah. Other writers in the past have used similar expressions about the talk-show queen, but they're usually being sarcastic. Nelson appears to be quite serious. At the beginning of her book, Nelson writes of the post-September 11 memorial service at Yankee Stadium: "This public memorial expression, intended to provide a sense of national unity and social consolation, featured as master of ceremonies Oprah Winfrey. A role that might have been filled twenty-five years ago by Billy Graham, spiritual adviser to six presidents, was played by an entertainer." Should this be a cause for concern? Nelson doesn't seem to think so. She admits that she used to feel some skepticism about the Oprah phenomenon. But watching and listening to Oprah brought Nelson's attention to certain things that Oprah does that are "not religion . . . but [are] compatible with religion." These things include helping to relieve suffering, providing community, encouraging self-examination, and reminding people about what's most important in life. "If you really like her, she becomes your 'inner Oprah,'" Nelson writes. By the end of the book, she states, "TV is a vast pulpit from which Oprah offers encouragement, inspiration, and entertainment." So what's wrong with this rosy picture? As Oprah promotes what Nelson calls "her basic live-your-best-life gospel," you cannot help but notice where the focus of it is. It's not on God. Oh sure, God gets mentioned here and there, but only as a means to an end. The gospel that Oprah preaches is about how to use God and God's values to make a better life for oneself. That's why Nelson is able to write, apparently with a straight face, "Augustine would make a great talk show guest. His Confessions stands as a fourth-century memoir of his life makeover through God's spiritual fitness program." And to think that I always thought the book was about the transforming power of grace. Ironically, after eighty pages of talking about the values Oprah represents and the influence she exercises, Nelson admits, "I don't know what [Oprah's] personal religious beliefs are." The point seems to be that nobody needs to know. Oprah is relentlessly positive and has the power of TV on her side. And TV, as Nelson explains, is the real moral entity at work here -- the power that holds you accountable and forces you to deal with your own demons. Or as Oprah explained to a guest, "There is no going back once you're on TV." I'm not saying don't watch Oprah. She's talented and generally provides wholesome entertainment. But don't confuse it with the faith. By Nelson's own account, many people are turning Oprah and TV into their own personal gods of self-fulfillment. And that's the kind of "religion" that does far more harm than good.


Chuck Colson


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