Oprahfied spirituality

In The New York Times, Mark Oppenheimer says that now that we live in a post-Oprah world (or, more accurately, a world in which Oprah has transitioned from daytime talk star to hands-on manager of her cable enterprise, OWN), we’re free to begin the assessment of her contribution. Oppenheimer says that spiritually speaking, Oprah’s contribution was at least partly Christian, partly New Age in origin.

Oprah scholars excel, as many good scholars do, at withholding judgment, seeking to explain rather than praise or condemn. One wishes for a more critical eye. I, for one, found something cathartic in Dr. [Eva] Illouz’s brief critique, when she called Ms. Winfrey “absurd” for “making suffering into a desirable experience.”

In her earnest spiritual seeking, Ms. Winfrey gave platforms to some rather questionable types. She hosted the self-help author Louise Hay, who once said Holocaust victims may have been paying for sins in a previous life. She championed the “medical intuitive” Caroline Myss, who claims emotional distress causes cancer. She helped launch Rhonda Byrne, creator of the DVD and book “The Secret,” who teaches that just thinking about wealth can make you rich. She invited the “psychic medium” John Edward to help mourners in her audience talk to their dead relatives.

“The Oprah Winfrey Show” made viewers feel that they constantly had to “sculpt their best lives,” Dr. [Kathryn] Lofton writes. Yet in her religious exuberance Ms. Winfrey gave people some badly broken tools. Ms. Winfrey nodded along to the psychics and healers and intuitives. She rarely asked tough questions, and because she believed, millions of others did, too.

Well. Maybe. Maybe these things are a part of who she is, and maybe an Oprah spirituality is a kind of patchwork or smorgasboard approach (which in many ways mirrors the culture it informs). I wonder, too, though: If Oprah hadn’t been willing to open up, try something different, and be vulnerable every day in front of millions of people for 25 years, what would the effect have been?

I have my doubts, too: doubts that naturally arise when, say, her magazine hawks both the philosophy of voluntary simplicity and $185 beach blankets without a smidgen of irony. Doubts that naturally arise when she does an intensive webcast on the ego with author Eckhart Tolle, then gives away cars, trips, and jewelry to pump up those egos. (Which raises the question: If you had the means, would you do it?)

Clearly she has changed many, many lives for the better. And clearly she is a very powerful person within the many industries to which she has laid her hand. So she will be judged rightly as a major force for good who tried just about everything that seemed to make for life and helped a generation or two create a patchwork spirituality of this-n-that: whatever worked, whatever promoted life, whatever made sense at the time.

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