New Age Spirituality

Goodbye Oprah

I have to admit that were it not for the Conan O’Brien Show, I would not have realized until now that this was the final week of the Oprah Winfrey Show.  Today National Review Online ran a symposium about her.  My response would have been simply: “Good Riddance.”  Alas other writers offered more detailed thoughts about her.  It was an interesting mix of reviews, some of them positive and others more critical.  While I appreciate some of the good that Oprah has done in promoting literacy, I am squarely in the camp of people who think Oprah’s net influence on the culture has been abysmal.

Several of her critics in this symposium discussed her left-wing politics.  The most succinct summary was Ben Shapiro’s towards the end of the symposium.  While she did indeed shill endlessly for the Chosen One in 2008, her politics never really bothered me.  The popular culture is littered with leftist clown acts.  Instead, her baleful influence on the culture runs much deeper.

Danielle Bean has one of the more insightful commentaries.  She discusses Oprah’s “spiritual” rather than religious side.

When we weren’t looking, Oprah transformed her image into something close to a spiritual icon. Her book recommendations included not only chick-lit fiction titles, but New Age spiritual resources. Her show’s tagline became “Live Your Best Life Now,” a directive that included a spirituality based on the works of New Age notables Marriane Williamson, Betty Eadie, and Sophy Burnham, among others.

In every human heart there is a void — a longing for emotional happiness, personal fulfillment, and spiritual wholeness. Our empty, aching hearts are made for communion with our Creator. Jesus Christ, who alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, can make us whole.

Oprah is a funny, smart, charismatic, and real American woman who has found commercial success by tapping into a human need for “soul food.” When popular culture feeds us New Age mumbo-jumbo, feel-good speak, and words of affirmation, we might be temporarily satiated, but in the end we come away empty again.

Oprah fills our hearts and minds with fleeting feelings. Only Christ can feed our souls.

Oprah is just the most notable representation of our culture’s affinity for new-age spirituality.  We see it everywhere.  Generic mumbo jumbo about getting in touch with our inner feelings has replaced the meatier aspects of religious formation.  Sadly this mentality is not just limited to popular culture.  It’s infected many of our parishes – just look at some of the offerings of our faith formation committees and the bland nonsense which they pass of as religious instruction.  Oprah has fed this beast better than anyone, and that is much more harmful than any of the good she may have accomplished.

Lisa Schiffren gets to the heart of why I’ve always found Oprah so odious.

Enter Oprah. Her personal confessions, tears, and overflowing emotions (delivered articulately enough to suggest preparation), changed the style of casual discourse — and, ultimately, political speech too.

Of course, the feminization of American culture had been underway for a century, episodically, before she showed up. Historian Ann Douglas had ascribed it (partly) to an alliance between victimized women and preachers, attempting to sissify a rugged pioneer culture (e.g. Prohibition or the peace movement).

On her show, Oprah got to be the hurt woman and the preacher. She talked about depression, weight, and sexual abuse, in a manner familiar to women from the intense, intimate confidences of deep female friendship. Those agonies and confessions won the love and allegiance of millions of American women, who were a little lost at whatever point in their lives they were home, watching. It worked because, in the same show, she’d go from victim to healer, offering a female version of the deeply American boot-strapper archetype.

The triumph of her style has helped de-stigmatize real victimization — which is a clear good. Alas, it has made life that much harder for conservatives and others who prefer the rational to the emotional, who don’t think that understanding necessarily equals forgiveness, and who think that there are constraints to material reality, even if there aren’t with love and forgiveness.

There are positive elements of the  feminization of the American culture, as Lisa points, but the overall effect of the Oprah-ization of America has been completely destructive.  Weepy sentimentality has become prevalent. Yeah, it’s good to deal with your emotions, but there is much more to life than perpetual group therapy.

Mollie Ziegler Hemmingway offers the most succinct summary:

If you support the widespread practice of pseudo-confessional but ultimately self-justifying defensiveness, the unleashing of hayseed morons such as Dr. Phil and trust-fund prevaricators such as James Frey, the spreading the New Age teachings of “The Secret” and normalization of a generic spirituality that views all religions as equally truthful, and encouraging grab-bag materialism over time-honored virtue, there is no question that Oprah Winfrey has had a net positive on American culture.

Amen sister.

Some will defend Oprah by saying she is a marked improvement over Jerry Springer and that brand of trash daytime television.  But a clear majority of people looked upon shows of its ilk for the trash that it was and is.  Oprah’s version of the daytime format is more nefarious because so many people actually buy into it.  In other words, almost all of America recognized that Jerry Springer was a clown.  Not so many recognize the same in Oprah.

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