By Steve Rabey
Oprah Winfrey is such a big star that we know her by one name, like Elvis, Madonna or Bono. She rules an entertainment empire worth nearly $1 billion. More than 20 million viewers — many of them Christians — tune into The Oprah Winfrey Show daily.
Yet she is so much more than an entertainer. Thousands of articles have been written about Oprah’s rags-to-riches life story and her philanthropy. Oprah’s Angel Network has raised more than $50 million to fund non-profit organizations worldwide.
But one of the most controversial aspects of her cultural influence derives from the emphasis she places on religion and spirituality. In 2002, Christianity Today declared she “has become one of the most influential spiritual leaders in America.”
A video called The Church of Oprah Exposed was posted in late March on YouTube. The video, which refers to Oprah’s viewers as “the largest church in the world,” has since been viewed more than 6.1 million times.
Most dangerous woman?
The operator of one Christian website calls her “the most dangerous woman” on earth. Some may consider that an overstatement, but many of Oprah’s Christian fans are growing increasingly concerned about her promotion of spiritual views they consider New Age — or, at the least, incompatible with biblical Christianity.
Lately, her favoured spiritual teacher has been Vancouver-based Eckhart Tolle, author of A New Earth — a major bestseller which mixes Christian and non-Christian views.
“I used to watch Oprah all the time,” says Southern California resident Nicole Yorkey. “I was hoping that she really was a Christian, so that she could positively influence so many people. Then the last few months she is into stuff that I think is New Age. I don’t want anything to do with it.”
Many Christians are talking about Oprah’s gospel. What does she believe? And what kind of ‘gospel’ are she and her associates promoting? The answers are complex, and include a mixture of Christian and other beliefs.
A media mission
Oprah is an unlikely mogul. She was born to an unmarried mother, and was raised in poverty. She was raped when she was nine years old — and later bore a child who died in infancy.
She has triumphed over tremendous odds; so it should come as no surprise that she has embraced and promoted a self-help approach to spirituality.
Christianity Today writer LaTonya Taylor said: “To her audience of more than 22 million mostly female viewers, she has become a postmodern priestess — an icon of church-free spirituality.”
Oprah speaks less about salvation through Christ than she does ‘Christ-consciousness.’ Likewise, she describes heaven not as an eternal destination, but an inner realm of consciousness. And she dismisses the idea that there is “one way” to God, when she says, “There couldn’t possibly be just one way.”
She adds: “One of the mistakes that human beings make is believing that there is only one way to live.” Instead, “there are many paths to what you call God.”
Larry Eskredge, associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College in Illinois, responds:
“Oprah’s theology seems to be a version of America’s secular theology of self-improvement, doing good to others, and the prosperity gospel. She is also able to foster a tremendous sense of community around her TV show. People who watch feel they are involved in a great quest to improve society and improve themselves.”
In fact, The Oprah Winfrey Show has a mission statement which emphasizes enlightenment as well as entertainment:
“I am guided by the vision of what I believe this show can be,” Oprah says in the mission statement.
“Originally, our goal was to uplift, enlighten, encourage and entertain through the medium of television. Now, our mission statement for The Oprah Winfrey Show is to use television to transform people’s lives, to make viewers see themselves differently and to bring happiness and a sense of fulfillment into every home.”
Guests and gods
Oprah was raised in the Baptist church, and frequently uses Christian language. She also uses her show’s influence to promote Christian projects, such as the bestselling book, Mistaken Identity, which was featured on her show the week of April 1.
The book explores how personal faith in Jesus Christ helped two families cope with a heartbreaking mix-up after one family’s daughter was killed and the other family’s daughter critically injured in an auto crash. Five weeks and one funeral later, authorities discovered they had switched the identities of the Taylor University students.
When a representative of the Cerak and Van Ryn families asked Oprah’s staff to provide a room where they could pray together before the show, Oprah asked permission to join them.
But as Oprah has said, at a certain point in her life, “I took God out of the box.”
She does not subscribe to the view that Christ alone offers the way to salvation. Instead, she argues that there are many paths to God, and her TV show guests and associates reflect this religious diversity.
Such is the case of Tolle, who has benefited from Oprah’s on-air influence. A New Earth sold more than 3.5 million copies in the first four weeks after Oprah added the work to her book club.
Every Monday night for 10 weeks, beginning March 3, more than half a million online members have joined a live interactive webcast, led by Oprah and Tolle, complete with a workbook and Audio Meditations and Awakening Exercises to study the teachings of Tolle’s book.
According to Baptist Press, Tolle draws from Buddhism, Islam and Christianity and teaches that humans should distance themselves from their egos and open up to a “higher self.” Don’t create your own suffering by stressing over the past or the future, Tolle advises. Live in the now. Oprah says this message is aimed at helping people “with spiritual growth” and “the languaging of new consciousness.”
Oprah acknowledges the book may be a difficult read. In a March 23 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, she is quoted as saying: “Don’t expect to immediately understand this book. But keep at it, because we need to change the world.”
An old deception
Bethany Publishing House will publish a book analyzing Tolle’s theology this summer.
According to a company spokesman, Richard Abanes‘ upcoming book, A New Earth, An Old Deception: Awakening to the Dangers of Eckhart Tolle and His #1 Bestseller, will expose the dangers of Tolle’s teaching, including his misuse of scripture, his false teachings on God and his disagreements with the Bible’s teaching on evil and salvation.
“Tolle’s message is one of many modern versions of the ancient quest to escape suffering and attain peace,” Abanes said. “He denies that he’s offering a religion. But Christians who buy into this are in danger of having their faith sidetracked.”
Tolle is not the first bestselling exponent of spiritual enlightenment to be given a major platform by Oprah. She also promoted Rhonda Byrne’s book The Secret and a related DVD program. Byrne teaches that the secret of life is in what people think.
“Think about it and it will come to you,” reported Baptist Press. “A Porsche, a cancer-free body, whatever. The Secret aired on Oprah’s program and was lapped up by consumers.”
After Byrne appeared on Oprah’s show, the book came next, becoming a best-seller and spawning Secret clubs across the country.
“Millions of Americans are intrigued with this idea that our thoughts create things,” reported Baptist Press. “It’s another narcissistic, self-centred lie that denies the sovereign, all-powerful creator God.”
One of the most detailed examinations of Oprah’s spirituality and the beliefs of her guests was published in a 2001 issue of the Christian Research Journal.
In ‘Oprah Winfrey and Her Self-Help Saviors: Making the New Age Normal,’ author Kate Maver talked about Tolle, Byrne, Gary Zukav and Caroline Myss.
Meanwhile, Live Prayer founder Bill Keller, who has called Oprah “the most dangerous woman on the planet,” provides a less nuanced overview in his “high-tech cyber debate.” Keller didn’t really debate Oprah, but rather created the “cyber debate” by cutting and pasting video snippets into a montage.
Assessing Oprah’s impact
Oprah is a complex person, and so is her impact. She is a survivor and overcomer, who has helped millions of people overcome their own personal challenges.
She has also played a profound role in America’s racial history, by transcending black and white. Today, few white Americans think of Oprah as a ‘black’ entertainer the same way they think of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama — whom Oprah has enthusiastically supported — as a ‘black’ candidate. Her ability to transcend disruptive racial divisions is impressive.
And even though many Christians disagree with her theology, Oprah has used her powerful platform to promote spiritual values at a time when many entertainers aim much lower — and she has backed up her talk with her walk, supporting many charitable organizations.
“Oprah’s theology is broad, eclectic and (almost too) generous,” said Craig Detweiler of the Reel Spirituality Institute at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.
“Her followers can receive her free, therapeutic booster shots five days a week. But she also backs her claims with genuine benevolence. That is a significant spiritual influence that churches must take seriously.”
Prison Fellowship founder Charles Colson addressed Oprah’s spirituality in a 2005 Breakpoint broadcast.
“I’m not saying, ‘Don’t watch Oprah,'” Colson said. “She’s talented, and generally provides wholesome entertainment. But don’t confuse it with the faith. 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.”
Steve Rabey is an award-winning writer from Colorado.