Oprah's God

On Wednesday, May 25th, Oprah ended her daytime television show after 25 years.  No gifts nor guests graced her final broadcast.  God and Jo Piazza were watching.

by Jo Piazza

For an hour last Wednesday afternoon Oprah Winfrey stood center stage in her Chicago studio, no guests, no surprises, no free cars—just Oprah.

If you’ve ever doubted that Oprah has spent the past 25 years cultivating a ministry of O, Wednesday’s finale of her long running talk show should have convinced you otherwise.

“Everybody has a calling. Everybody is called. My great wish for all of you is that you carry what you are supposed to be doing forward. Start embracing the light that is calling you and use your light to serve the world,” were among the sentiments Winfrey preached, heavy on the eye contact, in what can only be described as divine lighting that can make a 57 year old woman’s skin look so smooth. “You’re responsible for the energy you create for yourself and the energy you give to others.”

I was perhaps more sensitive to looking at Oprah through the lens of religious experience than I would have been on an average Wednesday, having recently finished Kathryn Lofton’s Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon. In her book Lofton, an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University, identifies Winfrey as a commodity in the market for spiritual capitalism. It was a trope I related to well. For the past two years I have been working on a book which identifies celebrities as commodities in the consumer marketplace. What I hadn’t considered was their place in the spiritual marketplace. That’s what Lofton does quite well.

I have come to learn that what separates Winfrey from the pedestrian famous-person-as-consumer-good is her consistent promotion of good living—it truly is a Gospel of O. What separates Winfrey’s work, Lofton says, from any other talk show host or even preachy celebrity “is the soul-salving signification attached to her recommendations.”

Lofton may sometimes lean too heavily on Winfrey’s consumer injunctions to make her point, but such reliance lends itself to an ideal narrative structure where she uses various gifting activities to introduce topics in each chapter. For example, Oprah’s princess surprise episode is used to highlight the ritual of her generosity and Lofton finds parallels between her book club and the continuing dissemination of the Protestant Reformation.

Despite some spiritual parallels that feel cherry-picked without enough substance (“The days of the calendar are prayer beads for Oprah, with each day offering the possibility of difference,” and “through the Oprah produced montage, average women become saints in the landscape of America deserving of some divine intervention”), Lofton’s overarching points about the religion of consumption and Oprah’s place in cultivating spiritual capitalism are especially poignant as the talk show host moves beyond her one-hour platform to a 24-hour a day cable network where she can encourage grace through more purchases of wicker storage baskets and white matted picture frames every minute of the day.

Lofton argues that Oprah disavows both religion and religious doctrine. “For her, religion implies control and oppression and the inability to catalog shop. The only way religion—and religious belief—works for Oprah is safely couched within a girl-power democracy and capitalist pleasure. It sounds harsh but Winfrey, despite peppering her shows with talk of God, grace and divine light, is stubbornly non-denominational and on Wednesday she addressed her personal definition of God, for one of the first times on her program.

Who is Oprah talking about when she talks about God?

“I’m talking about the same one you talking about. I am talking about the alpha and omega…the one and only GOD,” Oprah wailed, raising her hands in the air. “God is love, god is life and your life is always speaking to you.”

And God we imagine, in Oprah’s world, speaks to her personally from an antique brass burnished rotary phone that is simply divine.

Jo Piazza holds a Masters in Religious Studies from NYU. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Daily Beast and CNN. Her first book, Celebrity Inc.: Inside the Business of Being Famous is out this summer.

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