Wednesday May 25, 2011 the lights will dim in the First Church of Oprah as the Oprah Winfrey Show ends a run began in 1986. Surprised by that formulation? Shocked that I would call the show a kind of church? Well, there is no question that Oprah created a kind of religion over the past 25 years. It had Priests and teachers of sacred wisdom such a Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Truddi Chase, and Nate Berkus, just to name a few. It even had ‘fallen angels’ like James Frey.
You may not like what these people taught, and frankly, I think much of it was no better than snake oil, which often did more harm than good, but the same could be said of many religious teachers. And the fact that in many cases, these teachers simply made people feel good about themselves by letting those in the pews hear about and see others who were far worse off, is pretty pathetic. Of course, it’s also a move made by the leaders of more than few religious communities.
The First Church of Oprah had a shared language and there were appointed times of gathering. There was an overarching narrative and it was reinforced by an evolving canon of literature endorsed by the founder of the church. God was even invoked, but so carefully and infrequently that there was room in this church for theists and atheists alike.
The fact that Oprah created a kind of church, and could therefore be considered a religious leader, does not mean that what she did was good. In fact, like most religious phenomena, there is evidence of both good and bad. Ironically, or perhaps as proof that it really was a church, both the good and bad are very much like the good and bad created by more traditional churches.
Let’s start with Oprah herself. Was she high priestess or was she a goddess? Like most charismatic creatives, especially those with a keen sense of marketing, it was never clear if people were meant to worship Oprah or to follow her lead in creating better lives for themselves. If that doesn’t sound like a question with which religious leaders deal all of the time, I don’t know what does.
How about the relationship between personal salvation and genuine obligation to help others, including those not a part of the “holy community”? Again, this is a question for most religious communities, though it seems as if it is one where the Church of Oprah gets especially low marks in terms of the church’s members.
While it may have led to increased personal happiness for its followers, the level of service to others upon which it focused was quite low. To be fair, Oprah herself has tried to set a personal example and has given away more than 10% of her Forbes-estimated 2.5 billion dollar worth.
I could go on, but you get the point. Some of us may like what this church taught and accomplished, and others of us may not, but if it sounds like a church, practices like a church, inspires like a church, etc. I am pretty sure it’s a church – for better or for worse.