Needing only one name, Oprah occupies a preeminent place in American culture. She is a true media mogul: her Harpo Productions spans from O, The Oprah Magazine to the Oprah Winfrey Network. Paradoxically, her ubiquitous presence sometimes goes unnoticed. Like the air we breathe, Oprah is a fixture in 21st-century America. Since this fall marks 30 years since the debut of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and five years since it left the airwaves, it is fitting to reflect on Oprah’s influence.
As popular as Oprah is, she is equally polarizing. Critics argue that she has ushered in a modern age of American consumerism. “The Oprah effect” is a modern-day Midas touch: she has the power to turn books into best sellers, propel actors to stardom and launch spin-off shows for her trusted confidants, Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz. Oprah has become a product that we consume, extending beyond her person to become a phenomenon. Viewers frantically follow a figure who is directing not only what to buy but also what to believe. These critiques are necessary, but they also obscure Oprah’s contributions. How might we think of a theology of Oprah? In considering this question, I find it most fruitful to look not at Oprah’s explicitly spiritual material, but rather the role she occupies in our culture.
“The Oprah Winfrey Show” expanded the boundaries of the talk-show genre, moving beyond exposé segments to vulnerable interviews. Oprah’s brand extends beyond any one category; it stretches to touch upon interior design, spirituality, music, education and, yes, items to purchase. Her holistic approach to life demonstrates that we cannot divide our lives into distinct segments but, rather, our lives must be integrated. Oprah glides from heartfelt discussions of addiction with Whitney Houston to recommending the best lotion-infused spa socks on the market in a way that does not belittle the former. Rather, her approach demonstrates that all aspects of one’s life are important, ranging from the grand to the trivial. In a way, Oprah’s approach of finding good in all things resonates with the Ignatian spirituality call to find God in all things.
In a time before social media, when all aspects of a celebrity’s life were not just a click away, Oprah cultivated intimacy with her audience through self-disclosure. She broke new ground through revealing personal aspects of her life. The term “Oprahfication” was coined to describe public confessions as a form of therapy. Her well-known battle with weight loss and body image capture this vulnerability and intimacy. In a recent Weight Watchers commercial, she recounted her struggles with weight loss yet pointed to hope: “Nothing you’ve ever been through is wasted, so every time I tried and failed, and every time I tried again…has brought me to this most powerful moment to say, ‘If not now, then when?’” Images of Oprah taking up new, promising exercise routines fill the screen, recounting the long journey that not only belongs to Oprah, but is familiar to many devoted audience members who accompanied her along the way.
Oprah’s path to self-improvement focuses upon the positive rather than the negative. Rather than highlighting the parts of us that are unworthy, she summons us to be the best versions of ourselves. In the same commercial, Oprah calls to her audience: “Inside every overweight woman is a woman she knows she can be.” Oprah’s continual invocation to self-improvement resonates with the concept of magis in Ignatian spirituality. Magis calls us to something more. It is always beyond our grasp, but that is not to say it is elusive. Rather, God calls us to be more—more human, more authentically ourselves, more connected to God and others. Magis also lends critical insight to Oprah’s summons to self-improvement, for it cautions against a manic consumption that is all too frequently associated with Oprah. Magis is not simply accumulating more, piling more and more onto an already full plate, but rather, calls us to a depth and richness. In a society obsessed with consumption, this call for quality and integration is a necessary correction.
Oprah has a gift for creating community. Audience members are more than attendees at a talk show, or potentially new car owners—who can forget Oprah’s cries of “You get a car! Everybody gets a car!”—for all are invited to accompany Oprah on a journey. This invitation did not end with the conclusion of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” but continues through the Oprah Winfrey Network and Oprah’s website. She redefines the ways we gather through meeting people where they are. Oprah’s website brings together 4.5 million people every month, serving as a global community facilitator.
Of course, all of these contributions are part of a very successful business. The Weight Watchers commercial that moved many to tears came after Oprah bought 10 percent of the company’s shares. The Oprah website hosts “OCourses,” online courses that can cost up to $120 and promise 21 days to happiness or seven days to restful sleep. Consumption and business are always lingering in close proximity to this multibillionaire.
The “good news” or gospel of Oprah is a promise of the possibility of self-improvement. The journey that she is on is rocky, making her relatable to her audience members. She promises a more authentic, better life to all those who accompany her. Oprah illuminates the good that surrounds us and weaves together disjointed segments of our lives into a cohesive whole, promising that through this journey you will reach The Life You Want, the title of her forthcoming book and the ultimate destination to which she calls her followers.
The theology of Oprah is a combination of community, intimacy and positivity uniting around a call to self-improvement. It may not be a systematic theology, but it is significant that this good news is coming from an African-American woman in a culture where we have to be reminded of the dignity of black persons. Throughout her career, Oprah has refused to conform to the mold set out for her, instead blazing her own path and inviting others along for the journey. A theology that calls us to become our authentic selves and accompany others along the way continues to be a positive contribution.