By Elizabeth Tenety
The queen is abdicating her throne.
The little Baptist girl from Mississippi who became one of the most influential people in America will announce today that her talk show will come to an end in 2011, after 25 years on the air.
With millions of viewers worldwide, an XM radio station and a glossy magazine bearing her name, Oprah did so much more than incite audience hysteria over car giveaways. In her years on air, she became a spiritual leader to women around the world. Don’t believe that Oprah is a religious figure? Check out the charges her fiercest critics hurl at her: leading her viewers to damnation, creating her own cult and deceiving Christians about Jesus’ divinity. One widely circulated YouTube video that denounces Oprah’s “trance”-inducing “church” has more than 9 million views. In other words, she’s accused of blasphemy. Who knew daytime TV was so existential?
Oprah’s spiritual path is similar to many other modern Americans, despite her unusual platform. She grew up attending a Baptist church, became disillusioned, and settled into a spirituality that is more “love thy neighbor” than hellfire and damnation. In the past few years, she has used her show to promote enlightenment to the masses, most notably through a series of webcasts with Eckhart Tolle about his book “A New Earth.” Her unwillingness to acquiesce to religious dogma has gained her critics, even condemnation, but Oprah is in good company with much of the American public. According to the Pew Forum’s 2008 Religious Landscape Survey, 44% of Americans are members of a different religious denomination than the one in which they grew up, and 70% of Americans with a religious affiliation say that they believe many religions can lead to eternal life. We’re not exactly a nation of fundamentalists, but a nation of seekers styled in Oprah’s image.
Oprah may find compatriots in televangelist Joyce Meyer and Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, two prominent American female religious leaders. But with so few women leading flocks, it’s no wonder that women give their attention to a spiritual leader broadcast daily into their living rooms who calls them to a deeper understanding of God –and the right pants for their body type.
In the first Tolle webcast in March 2008, a viewer asked Oprah, “How have you reconciled these spiritual teachings with your Christian beliefs”?
“I reconciled it because I was able to open my mind about the absolute indescribable hugeness of that which we call God,” Oprah said. “I took God out of the box because I grew up in the Baptist church and there were rules and belief systems and doctrine.”
“What I believe is that Jesus came to show us Christ-consciousness. Jesus came to show us the way of the heart … Jesus came to say ‘Look, I’m going to live in the human body and I’m going to show you how it’s done. These are some principles and some laws that you can use to live by to know that way’. . . Even as a Christian, I don’t believe that Jesus came to start Christianity.”
Oprah may not believe that Jesus came to start Christianity, but before he left, he reassured his nervous disciples that they would never be alone, and that he would “send out an advocate” to guide them, to aide them and to teach them what they need to know.
Reports indicate that in the absence of her talk show, Oprah may be sending another advocate: The Oprah Winfrey Network. And if that endeavor fails, then Oprah, please send Dr. Phil.
(Elizabeth Tenety is producer of Divine Impulses for On Faith.)