“. . .I’m very clear about what my role and purpose is,” Winfrey said to Piers Morgan in a January interview.
“This isn’t about me. I am the messenger to deliver the message of redemption, of hope, of forgiveness, of gratitude, of evolving people to the best of themselves. So I am on my personal journey. My personal journey is to fulfill the highest expression of myself here as a human being here on earth.”
If it sounds like Oprah is using elegant, non-religious language to describe her spiritual purpose, that’s because she is. The Baptist girl from Mississippi has evolved into a living symbol of the “spiritual but not religious” movement, delivering new age gurus to suburban living rooms and calling her largely female devotees to their embrace their life’s great purpose.
Kathryn Loften, a Yale professor of American and religious studies and author of “Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon,” told Salon.com that Winfrey’s unlikely rise to spiritual leadership precisely explains her appeal: “She represents -- in her race and gender and origins -- being utterly outside established power,” Loften said. “This is appealing to people who associate religion with controlling authority, rigid dogma or social adherence. This is a religion for those who don’t want to be religious, but want to feel revelation.”
Winfrey may be tapping into her higher power, but she’s also connecting with trends in religious behavior in American culture at large. We are a nation of seekers who increasingly report being unaffiliated with any particular religious tradition. A 2010 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public life found that “more than one-quarter of American adults (28 percent) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion - or no religion at all,” and that the ranks of the unaffiliated are the nation’s fastest growing group. Oprah proves to her fellow seekers that you can leave religion behind but keep the spiritual journey.
In 2007, Winfrey threw her support behind spiritual writer Rhonda Byrne’s “The Secret” who claimed that through the “law of attraction” “we attract into our lives the things that we want.” Winfrey summarized the teaching on her show, saying, “We all, human beings here on earth, create our own reality. We create our own circumstances by the choices that we make and the choices that we make are fueled by our thoughts. So our thoughts are the most powerful thing that we have here on earth.” Winfrey was criticized for popularizing what many saw as a pseudoscience; she later acknowledged the criticism but insisted that “The Secret” “was really just the beginning” of a larger spiritual movement.
In 2008, Oprah launched that endeavor, joining with spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle for a series on her show and online about his book “A New Earth.” And here’s the power of the law of Winfrey’s attraction: the AP reported that in the four weeks after Winfrey blessed the text for her book club, 3.5 million copies were purchased, breaking records at Penguin Group publishers. A half-million people from more than 100 countries registered for the online joint seminar on the book to discover what Winfrey called “the possibility of an awakened consciousness.” Tolle, Winfrey said “is a prophet for our time.”
Of course, even Oprah can’t embrace post-religious philosophies without alienating some religious people. A YouTube video that went viral in 2008 and has over 10 million views decries “The Church of Oprah” and includes this exchange between Winfrey and several Christian audience members:
Winfrey: One of the mistakes that human beings make is believing that there is only one way to live and that we don’t accept that there are diverse ways of being in the world, that there are millions of ways to please God and many ways, many paths to what you call God.
Audience member I: And I guess the danger that could be in ... I mean it sounds great at the onset but if you really look at both sides ...
Winfrey: There couldn’t possibly be just one way!...
Audience member II: You say there’s isn’t only one way . There is one way and only one way and that is through Jesus.
Oprah: There couldn’t possibly be only one way with millions of people in the world!
Christian apologists and writers pounced, having long seen Winfrey as a religious leader, warning that her gospel of you leads people astray. But that has not stopped millions from buying, watching or logging on to the spirituality she’s selling.
On her last show Wednesday, the final words Oprah preached were “To God be the glory.”
Is Oprah Winfrey a symbol of the modern spiritual journey or an active leader of the movement?
What have you learned from her?
Note: This story has been udpated.