Click here if you want to read the dead-tree-pulp Washington Post story about the final show by Oprah Winfrey. Or don’t. It really doesn’t matter, because this story is about a television event — not a signpost event in the development of pop and/or civic religion in American culture. Ditto for this news report in the New York Times.
But back to the Post. That news report I mentioned earlier does not contain the stuff that matters the most to the principalities and powers in that newsroom.
Why do I say that? If you head to the Post website on this day after the TV apocalypse and click on the word “Oprah” in the highlighted “In the News” list at the masthead, it takes you straight to the following online meditation by the Post‘s own spiritual seeker in chief, the atheist/Episcopal guru Sally Quinn. That’s where you will find the content — Oprah: America’s high priestess — that really matters and it sounds something like this:
Oprah Winfrey has discovered one of the most effective ways of imparting her beliefs to others. Not by telling them what to do, but by getting them to decide what to do for themselves. She is the master of “free will,” an often controversial subject in contemporary religion.
In recent years, religious behaviors have changed dramatically. More people have left traditional religions to join congregations which are self validating. Gone were the fire and brimstone, you’re-all-going-to-hell-unless-you-accept-Jesus-Christ-as-your-personal-savior, the judgment, the fear, the punishment. Many religious and spiritual leaders have taken the lead on this, realizing people don’t want to be lectured to and made to feel guilty for common human failings. People want to feel hopeful, as though they matter. They want to feel empowered.
Oprah led the way. It may be a reach to say that she has changed the direction of modern religion, but people who have tuned into her show for 25 years have come to realize they are not perfect, that nobody is perfect and that she is not perfect. Oprah did not demand perfection. She helped people understand that they were human and that their humanity was to be celebrated.
Actually, a wide range of believers believe in “free will,” including traditional Christians. That isn’t the issue. The debates between Oprah and traditional religious leaders have long centered on whether there are any consequences for sinful choices, consequences in this life and the next. Oprah’s brilliant move was to erase, as Quinn said, discussions of “judgment,” “fear” and “punishment.” She also erased lines between religions that, truth be told, have serious differences in their core doctrines and practices.
She led the way in creating what I have long called “OprahAmerica,” it’s a culture defined by emotion, feelings and stories, not by acts of creeds, doctrines and sacraments that have eternal consequences.
So Quinn perfectly summarized the core of this event. Nailed. It.
Note, however, that her work does not “cover” this event in terms of news. Instead, she celebrates it. Why? In part, Quinn founded “On Faith” to celebrate this approach to religion news (see “On Fog,” a meditation) — focusing on religion as a realm of feelings and opinions, not as a subject in which there are events and trends that are best covered in a balanced, accurate, journalistic manner.
Readers who are seeking journalistic content about the SUBJECT of Oprah’s work and its impact on American religion will have to look elsewhere. You can start with this roundup of links by veteran Godbeat specialist Cathy Lynn Grossman at USA Today. Then head over here to a fine piece by Elizabeth Tenety at, ironically, the “On Faith” site at the Post.
If you find other journalistic reports on the farewell, please leave us the URLs in the comments pages.
Out at the Los Angeles Times, the main “Oprah” link also leads to a first-person, heart-on-sleeve essay that centers on feelings and emotions, rather than a more brass-tacks journalistic approach. This essay in the “Show Tracker” entertainment weblog by Rebecca Traister — author of “Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women” — does contain this commentary on one of the most important sequences in the Oprah farewell ceremony.
This is long, but essential:
The weirdest part of the episode came when Oprah — usually secular, if blandly spiritual –- touched on the divine, allowing as how her answer to how she’s done it all these years has always been, “My team, and Jesus. Because nothing but the hand of God has made this possible for me.” Anticipating questions about which god she was talking about, she continued, “I’m talking about the same one you’re talking about. I’m talking about alpha and omega, the omniscient, the omnipresent, the ultimate consciousness, the source, the force, the all of everything there is, the one and only G-O-D.”
Well, OK, then! “I know I’ve never been alone, and you haven’t either,” she said. “And I know that that presence that flow, some people call it grace, is working in my life at every single turn, and yours too if you let it in.”
Wait, was Oprah preaching? Yes, yes, she was. And how did she know all this? She asked. Wellllll…. “That one teeny little sperm of Vernon Winfrey hittin’ that egg of Vernita Lee in the one time they were together under the trees in Mississippi and, voila, out pops me!”
Oprah’s theorem on the existence of god is reliant on the story of her own conception. “From Mississippi to this moment with you, I know what a miracle that is,” she said. “God is love, and God is life, and your life is always speaking to you,” she said. “First in whispers. … If you don’t pay attention to the whispers, it gets louder and louder and louder. … So I ask you: What are the whispers in your life right now?”
What does that mean? Why “god” in one place and “God” in another?
You see, these are the wrong questions. They are content-driven questions. They are mean, doctrinal, logical questions. The big question is this one: How does the gospel according to Oprah make you feel?
And on this day, that’s the news. Literally.