The entertainment business is not usually thought of as a missionary enterprise, but talk-show host and media queen Oprah Winfrey is a woman on a mission. It says so right in her magazine's table of contents: "This month's mission . . ." The mission themes of the month in O, the Oprah magazine, are not exactly part of orthodox Christianity ("Fun," "Couples," "Freedom," "Strength"), but Oprah does refer to God a lot (as in her April column: "I used to ask God to help me master a new virtue every year").
At the center of Oprah's mission, of course, is her daily TV talk show, which entered its 17th season this fall. Amid its hodgepodge of topics-female war correspondents, the decorating challenged, moms who are mean to their kids, crime victims who forgive their assailants, and, oh yes, the quest to lose weight-Oprah stresses a message: Make yourself happy.
Oprah's work is about maximizing happiness for oneself and thereby for others. Make yourself happier, make your family happier, make your community happy, and better, by "using" your life. Far from being distinct, "happier" and "better" are pretty much synonymous in Oprah's world. From a biblical standpoint, her teaching is idiosyncratic, like her name-a misspelling of Orpah, Naomi's other daughter-in-law in the Book of Ruth.
Oprah has a prominent pulpit from which to preach. Her TV show has an audience of 22 million viewers. Her two-year-old magazine has a readership of 2.5 million and is generally hefty with advertising. (The May issue, for example, hit an astounding 304 pages with around half of them occupied by advertising.)
Authors and publishers would also testify to her golden touch. Of the 46 works of fiction picked by Oprah for her book club (which she recently closed down), sales averaged 1.5 million in 1999, the club's biggest year. In this arena, Oprah's roles as saleswoman and spiritual guru blend. She prescribed edifying books, many of them by women or people of color. The stories were strong on plot, character and moral awareness.
Phyllis Tickle, who was editor of religion books for many years at Publishers Weekly and likes to describe religion books as "portable pastors," characterizes the Oprah books as "morally sound material, by and large, that is credible and enriching . . . Like most of what she does, you're the better for having read them. Her tastes are very pastoral as well as literary."
"I have enormous respect for Oprah," Tickle continues. "Anybody who can better the living experience of thousands of people has to be respected. She may not be ordained but she sure is pastoral, and pastoral at a level that has a vast impact."
With her conversational ease and casual style, Oprah comes across the TV screen as personal and personable, both pastor and best friend, authoritative yet approachable. "She is like a personal institution," says Judith Martin, who teaches religious studies at the University of Dayton and has written on feminist spirituality.
Oprah is, of course, preaching mostly to the nation's mamas. Oprah's magazine and TV show advertise products for women. Her TV audience is overwhelmingly female. Most of her book club readers are women, as author Jonathan Franzen understood when he worried that her endorsement might shoo male readers away from his National Book Award-winning novel The Corrections.
Oprah is preeminently the voice of women in the middle: middle-class, middle-American and, like Oprah, middle-aged. They are people caught in the middle of families, interpersonal conflicts, too many good intentions, and an overlong to-do list. These are women trying to manage busy lives and households, address personal and social concerns, and maybe also lose some weight.
Oprah offers lots of things to help. She is an encourager. "Live your best life" is the Oprah slogan, almost a verbal logo. Oprah offers tools for living your best life: books to read, people to emulate, material things to help (an eclectic assortment of goods that make up a monthly "O list" of belts, shoes, vases, towels and other accessories). The magazine contains "O to Go" paper goodies-note cards, postcards and bookplates for readers to tear out. The feature "Something to think about" is another tear-out page for jotting down reflections on questions related to the issue's mission. "How would you create an `inner-strength' team?" "How can you be forceful without using violence or harsh words?"
The timing of the TV show, at least in the Chicago area -Oprah's home turf-has a whiff of morning service. It's an hour-long ritual each weekday at 9 a.m., adding up to a lot more pulpit time per week than the average pastor enjoys, and in front of a lot bigger congregation. (Oprah herself used to attend a large Chicago church-Trinity United Church of Christ, pastored by Jeremiah Wright. But according to Wright's secretary, Janet Moore, Oprah hasn't attended in 12 years.)