There can be little doubt about the power, the influence and the inspiration of Oprah.
Her career began with a local radio station when she was just 19. Then, through hard work and talent, she worked her way up through television as newscaster and anchor, through Tennessee and Maryland, until finally, in 1984, she moved to WLS-TV in Chicago to host a local talk show, which became such a hit it eventually went national.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Now she is arguably the best-known woman in the world, with an influence that extends into television, magazines, movies, book publishing, and the internet. By her 20th anniversary as host of The Oprah Winfrey Show, she had become a billionaire and assembled a U.S. television audience of more than 49 million viewers each week – which does not include her broadcasts in 122 other countries. This past year, Forbes magazine named her the most influential celebrity for 2007.
But Oprah is more than a celebrity. She is even more than a brand, or a business.
She has become a cultural force.
Oprah can single-handedly turn a book into a bestseller; she has been sued for crippling an industry simply by publicly denouncing its product. She even launches words; the Wall Street Journal coined the word “Oprahfication” to describe “public confession as a form of therapy.” Jet magazine uses “Oprah” as a verb, with sentences like, “I didn’t want to tell her, but...she Oprah’d it out of me.” Even politicians now hold “Oprah-style” town meetings.
But her latest role may be her most significant – the role of America’s spiritual guide.
Much of her guidance is deeply Christian and highly commendable, pulling from her Baptist upbringing. In her book, The Gospel According to Oprah, Marcia Nelson outlines some of the commendable aspects of Oprah’s spirituality, including the themes of forgiveness and generosity, self-examination, gratitude and community.
But there’s more to her spirituality than a few broad, generic Christian themes. It increasingly reflects currents of thought embodied by such authors as Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson, and most recently, Eckhart Tolle (pronounced “toe-lee”), whose latest book A New Earth has seen nearly 5 million shipped with the Oprah seal on the front thanks to a series of 10 “live” Monday night web seminars which began on March 3rd featuring Tolle and Winfrey on Oprah’s website. So popular were the webcasts that the first night brought down the server when more than 500,000 people tried to log on, and now nearly 2 million have downloaded or streamed the first class.
So what are people learning?
As Tolle writes in the foreword to his book Stillness Speaks, his thinking “can be seen as a revival for the present age of the oldest form of recorded spiritual teaching: the sutras of ancient India.”
Translation? Hinduism. Or as he packages it, an eclectic gathering of gleanings from Hinduism, Buddhism, and watered-down Christianity. Result? A fresh presentation of what is commonly called the New Age Movement, which tends to have four basic ideas:
The first is that “all is one, and one is all.” Which means, of course, that “God is all, and all is God.” Which also means that “I am God.” In his book The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle writes that he doesn’t like to use the word “God,” or to talk about finding God, because it implies an entity other than you, or me.
The second major belief is that since most people don't realize that they are god, they need to be enlightened. This enlightenment can flow from many sources, including “spirit-channeling.” Marianne Williamson, a frequent guest of Oprah’s, had garnered her first bestseller - A Return to Love – by popularizing A Course in Miracles, which the author claimed was dictated by a spirit voice which she says was Jesus, but not Jesus of Nazareth.
The third major belief is that everything is relative. What Tolle advocates, and what you will find advocated by many of Oprah’s recent guests, is that the truth is simply within you. Tolle writes that “The Truth is inseparable from who you are...you are the truth.” In fact, he distorts Jesus’ famous statement, “I am the way, the truth and the life,” by claiming that what Jesus meant was that He was His own truth, just like we can be our own truth.
A fourth major belief, in one form or another, is reincarnation. Toward the end of A New Earth, Tolle writes that “When the lion tears apart the body of the zebra, the consciousness that incarnated into the zebra-form detaches itself from the dissolving form and for a brief moment awakens to its essential immortal nature as consciousness; and then immediately falls back into sleep and reincarnates into another form.”
Of course, there is nothing new about new age thinking. It dates back further than Hinduism. Indeed, it can be found in the opening chapters of Genesis, for it was the heart of Satan’s temptation of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:1-5).
He challenged the idea of there being right or wrong.
"Now did God really say that you shouldn't do that?"
He said that death was an illusion.
“You will not surely die.”
He said that they could become divine.
“You will be like God.”
He said that the way they would become like God is through enlightenment.
“You will know good from evil.”
I believe Oprah is a very sincere and authentic person. I also believe she is a bit lost right now. But I am hopeful she will find her way. And the reason is because of something that happened with another of her favorite authors.
More than 1.7 million copies of James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, have been sold in the United States since Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club. Only J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince sold more copies in the U.S. last year. When cracks in Frey’s account of his life began to surface, Frey admitted he lied about past criminality. Arguing that he wrote “the emotional truth,” Winfrey initially called the uproar “much ado about nothing,” intimating that the truth of the book mattered less than its story of redemption.
But that sentiment did not last.
In a stunning switch, Winfrey has since accused Frey on live television of lying and letting down fans of his account of addiction and recovery. She said, “I feel duped,” she said on the show. “But more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers.” In discussing her change of mind, Winfrey said, “I left the impression that the truth is not important.”
My hope is that she keeps chasing that thought.
James Emery White
*From the editor: For an audio tape or manuscript of the full address James Emery White gave on “The Church of Oprah,” from which this was adapted, visit www.serioustimes.com, and click on the “resources” tab. It was part of a larger series titled “Celebrity Religion,” which included talks on “The Church of Tom Cruise” and “The Church of Bono,” both of which are available as downloadable manuscripts at www.serioustimes.com.
The Oprah Phenomenon by Robert J. Thompson, Jennifer Harris, and Elwood Watson
I Don’t Believe in Failure (The African American Biography Series) by Robin Westen
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.
Stillness Speaks by Eckhart Tolle.
A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle.
The Gospel According to Oprah by Marcia Nelson.
“The Church of O,” LaTonya Taylor, posted 4/01/02, Christianity Today Magazine (christianitytoday.com).
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About Dr. James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
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