The church of O is pantheistic

In Christianity Today, LaTonya Taylor offered the definitive look at “The Church of O” 10 years ago. There are many reasons why I’m not the type of woman to get into Oprah Winfrey, but her religious views always intrigued me.

Earlier this week, Tmatt looked at some of the coverage of Oprah’s goodbye show. He wrote “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.” But how many articles got at that issue?

In the New York Times this weekend, Mark Oppenheimer looked at “The Church of Oprah Winfrey and a Theology of Suffering.” And as you might expect of a religion column, it’s all about the unique religion advanced by Oprah, “at once Christian and pantheistic.” The first part of the article talks about some of the Christian strains in her theology, with interesting quotes from Eva Illouz, a sociologist:

While respecting Ms. Winfrey’s use of her Christian heritage, Dr. Illouz ultimately concluded that the talk-show host might be something of a false prophet. That is because, she said, Ms. Winfrey and her cadre of self-help experts treated suffering as something beneficial. Ms. Winfrey turned the black church’s ethos of self-reliance in the face of suffering into an exaltation of suffering itself.

“By making all experiences of suffering into occasions to improve oneself,” Dr. Illouz wrote, “Oprah ends up — absurdly — making suffering into a desirable experience.”

And if, as Ms. Winfrey’s teachings suggest, strong women “can always transcend failure by the alchemy of their own will and of therapy, then people have only themselves to blame for their misery,” Dr. Illouz said.

Very interesting. We then get an intriguing discussion of Charles Grandison Finney and the “anxious bench.”

But I also enjoyed the part of the article that looked at the non-Christian aspects of Oprah’s theology:

Yet the Church of Winfrey is at most partly Christian. Her show featured a wide, if drearily similar, cast of New Age gurus. As Karlyn Crowley writes in her contribution to “Stories of Oprah: The Oprahfication of American Culture,” an essay collection published last year, Ms. Winfrey excelled at offering “spiritual alternatives to the mainstream religions” in which many of her followers grew up. Ms. Winfrey presided over something like a “New Age feminist congregation,” Dr. Crowley writes. …

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.

Oppenheimer’s reported column ends with this type of criticism of Winfrey’s religious exuberance and failure to ask tough questions of “psychics and healers and intuitives.” Whether you agree or disagree with Oppenheimer, this is a thoughtful and well argued analysis of Oprah’s theology and its limitations. It’s nice to read something of this nature in the weekend paper.

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  • Jerry

    That is quite some hatchet job. I’m surprised that you did not excoriate a piece for Eva Illouz’s ignorance of religion specifically but also at least one more howler.

    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.

    That is, to anyone who has studied religion a concept from Eastern spirituality called karma. The wording in that article indicates that the writer does not know about karma.

    But my biggest beef with the story is “false prophet. That is because, she said, Ms. Winfrey and her cadre of self-help experts treated suffering as something beneficial.” This indicates ignorance with Christian theology. has extensive Biblical quotes in support of the principle that suffering can be beneficial. For example:

    4- Pain and suffering can help to shape our character.
    Example: People who have survived as prisoners of war or persecutions often have a strength of character which is admired by others. Gold is refined by the fire which heats it until the impurities come out.
    Scripture: Isaiah 48:10; Zechariah 13:8,9: James 1:2-4

    6- Pain and suffering can lead to repentance and salvation.
    Sometimes it takes pain and suffering to turn a person’s life around and head it in the right direction.
    Example: The Israelites who repented in times of persecution in the Old Testament. Saul who became Paul in the New Testament of the Bible.
    Scripture: Judges 2:11-19 describes the cycle which the Israelites when through as they forsook their God only to be brought back to Him by suffering and then to forsake Him again when times were good. In contrast to that Acts 9:1-16 tells the suffering which lead Saul the persecutor to become Paul the apostle, faithful to his God until his dying breath.

    7- Pain and suffering can sometimes help us to trust God.
    Perhaps we are forced to turn to God because we have no other place to turn.
    Example: There are numerous people who have made the decision to trust God because of their pain and suffering.
    Scripture: Job 40:3-5; Job 42:2, 3; Lamentations 3:19-24; Daniel 3:16-18; Habakkuk 3:17-19

  • Randy

    I don’t know that she coherently says suffering is good. She does say you learn from suffering. She does not come close to the concept of self-sacrifice. The two should flow together. If suffering is helpful then blindly pursuing pleasure for pleasures sake is not rational. But Oprah is not coherent. She agrees superficially with a wide variety of guests. That is because she never gets deep enough to find where contradictions will occur. She only has to be right for 60 minutes.

  • Henry

    Where are you, Mollie? You’ve got your comment-pruning work cut out for you.

  • C. Wingate

    OK, well, here’s a puzzle in the story: there is a very old line within Christianity that does treat endurance of suffering as meritorious. One can object to this or not as one wills, but I find it rather odd that Dr. Illouz sets herself up as a theological authority in that manner. Is she even Christian? Why on earth did they have to go all the way to Jerusalem to find someone to comment about this? Could it be that two out of three people quoted in this article (counting the reporter, who does speak on his own authority) are Jewish?

    I like the insights about Finney and the black church, but there is rather a lot of theological opinion hiding in this story.

  • Mollie

    Oh dear.

    See this is what happens on holiday weekends with sick family members. I come back to a comment thread that is more or less off-topic.

    Part of this is my fault, in that I highlighted a column, as opposed to an article. There’s certainly plenty to agree or disagree with in the column.

    I’m going to go ahead and delete various comments and ask that we try to keep focused on the particulars of this column, as opposed to getting too far afield.