Thursday, May 11, 2006

"[H]ip and materialistic Mother Theresa"

Some articles beg to be blogged on the basis of the quotes therein alone, such as this one about Oprah Winfrey's ascent to gurudom.

I've noted once or twice on my old blog (in posts related to the James Frey debacle) that I find a number of things about Winfrey to be quite admirable, and I would have a hard time understanding how even people who don't like her can't see that she's a remarkable woman.

But that's all she is: a flesh-and-blood woman, which makes some parts of this article, while amusing and even laughable, more than a little creepy.

A sampling:

She's no longer just a successful talk-show host worth $1.4 billion, according to Forbes' most recent estimate. Over the past year, Winfrey, 52, has emerged as a spiritual leader for the new millennium, a moral voice of authority for the nation.


"She's a really hip and materialistic Mother Teresa," says Kathryn Lofton, a professor at Reed College in Portland, Ore., who has written two papers analyzing the religious aspects of Winfrey. "Oprah has emerged as a symbolic figurehead of spirituality."


"She's a moral monitor, using herself as the template against which she measures the decency of a nation," Lofton says.

Holy hyperbole! Am I the only one who finds that quote invoking Mother Theresa hilarious on a number of levels?

Well, it's not just college professors:

In Ellen DeGeneres' stand-up comedy act several years ago, she included a joke about getting to heaven and finding that God is a black woman named Oprah.

Last fall, at the start of this 20th season of The Oprah Winfrey Show, guest
Jamie Foxx said much the same thing, but he wasn't joking. "What you have is something nobody can describe," Foxx said to Winfrey on the air. Then he explained about how he told Vibe magazine: "You're going to get to heaven and everyone's waiting on God and it's going to be Oprah Winfrey."

He told her she has "different gears" than most people. "You're on the top of the world, and we really do watch and listen for everything you do and say to kind of get our lives together. It's the truth."

I'm surprised he didn't break into a rousing rendition of "I Don't Know How to Love [Her]." In any case, that's a lot of weight and responsibility for one woman, even if she does reach more people in a day than your average pastor in a lifetime, as the article points out, and even if she is, as they say, "richer than God."

But her popularity among swooning celebs isn't the amazing thing.

In a November poll conducted at, a site that looks at how religions and spirituality intersect with popular culture, 33% of 6,600 respondents said Winfrey has had "a more profound impact" on their spiritual lives than their clergypersons.

Cathleen Falsani, religion writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, recently suggested, "I wonder, has Oprah become America's pastor?"

"I am not God," Oprah said in a 1989 story by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison that ran in The New York Times Magazine titled The Importance of Being Oprah. But at the time, Winfrey called her talk show her "ministry," Harrison wrote. It remains an interview Winfrey says she hates. In a Los Angeles Times interview in December, the talk-show host said that "at every turn everything I said was challenged and misinterpreted."

Well, that's certainly possible, and if I'm recalling the article correctly, Winfrey's dislike of it is understandable. How much more ironic, then, that she now inspires some of the sentiments expressed in this USA Today article, especially since her original appeal was precisely her down-to-earth quality and how hard she had worked to overcome childhood horrors, real-world prejudice and other challenges on her way to success.

... "I live inside God's dream for me. I don't try to tell God what I'm supposed to do," she told the crowd. "God can dream a bigger dream for you than you can dream for yourself."

Claire Zulkey, 26, an Oprah follower who has written about Winfrey in her online blog at zulkey .com, says, "I think that if this were the equivalent of the Middle Ages and we were to fast-forward 1,200 years, scholars would definitely think that this Oprah person was a deity, if not a canonized being."

Marcia Nelson says that it's not going too far to call her a spiritual leader. "I've said to a number of people - she's today's Billy Graham."

Surely Winfrey finds all of this more than a little embarrassing; I wonder how she squares it with her own beliefs. Or is this what she means by living "inside God's dream" for her?