Oprah: Gospel of an Icon

Paul Harvey

Another day, another author interview -- I was hoping to do this myself somewhere down the road, but no longer necessary as Immanent Frame's "Spirituality, Political Engagement, and Public Life" has done it for me.

Kathryn Lofton's new book Oprah: Gospel of an Icon, is just out -- and just out in time for Oprah's new network, in what must surely be a divine coincidence. Check out the interview about the book here, where the author speaks with her usual panache. A little excerpt:

NS: What is it about how American religious history is studied now that has left Oprah not well-enough understood?

KL: I would say that the “how” of what we study is less problematic than the way we cordon our topics, which is very much an inheritance of our role as seminary church historians. I want to see more books written about objects that seem unlikely for religious studies, such as those seemingly in the purview of pop culture, but also those from economic and political arenas. Moreover, I think our disposition toward our subjects is often too tender for our own good. If on the one side we’ve been formed by our seminarian genealogies, on the other we inherit an abused mentality, one that flinches constantly at the possibility that elsewhere in the humanist ranks we’re being mocked for proximity to the religious subject. And so we appear, I think, often too defensive of our topics, believing they need caretaking before exposure to the imagined Marxist menace. So, if there is a critical edge to the book, it is to goad us to be less worried about explaining our subjects to their cultured despisers, and instead pursuing the mediations of their belief systems, the multiple functions of their ritual reiterations, and the social systems to which they reply and in which they participate

Read more about the book here, and more on the author here.


Anonymous said…
Hi Paul, thanks. I was able to read Kathryn's interview through the link. As always, it was filled with the passion and learning that characterizes her works. At the risk of being overwhelmed with her learning, I am tempted to quibble with her about the legacy of "church seminary historians." While I'm aware of the general works that explore this topic (Bowden, Taves, R. Laurence Moore, the Tweed collection, etc.), I am quite curious to know what she means. I don't see the evidence for perpetuations of seminary history in our field today. If a random survey were done on books that are assigned in religious studies, you would find (I am absolutely convinced) that books like Orsi's "Madonna" are the most popular (which hardly qualifies under the category she uses). I'd love to hear Kathryn (perhaps on this blog) say more about where she finds evidence of the continuing influence of this in religious studies. And if this is a reference to contemporary research (on topics and issues of the last 10 years or so)?

Curtis J. Evans
Kathryn Lofton said…
Curtis, as always your questions make me wish I could copy edit thinking I've done in the past and in the present! What I meant in the interview was that our justifications for scholarship have often been limited by certain institutional definitions of religion (definitions that Orsi's work contests but by no means totally refutes). When I look at the books and manuscripts I've reviewed over the last ten years in U.S. religious history, the vast majority still define their subjects through ideas of authority and organization that are both Protestant (in terming) and denominational (in situation), despite the delightful upending revelations of critical scholarship (like yours). While I think we've criticized these habits with rightful detail, we have yet to model new modes of religious analysis that are not merely deconstructive of those traditions, but also replacing of them with new descriptions of what the religious ought to include.
Anonymous said…
Thanks, Kathryn, for such a quick response. I see your point, especially regarding "institutional definitions" of religion, though I'm reflecting on these issues as a right (with full awareness that your extraordinary capacity to master and devour so many new texts is rarely surpassed, and thus one is inclined to defer to your judgment for that reason alone!). I really liked your response to the question about how or if rhapsody as scholarship. Very good interview. I learned a lot from it. If only I had the capacity to digest books as quickly and thoroughly as you do, I'd have read your book by now. But alas, it too is on my every growing "must read" list. Thanks for the response.

Curtis J. Evans
Kathryn Lofton said…
Curtis, nobody should be hard on themselves about not reading enough -- wily students will see it took me six years from my Ph.D. to write this volume (this is not to mention the preceding 9 years of O-watching), partially because it took that long to consider the issues raised by all the books, like THE BURDEN OF BLACK RELIGION, that spoke to such core revisions in the field of U.S. religious history. I don't know if what I did represents all of this work as well as I wanted, but I do know that we both write in an amazing moment of intellectual vitality for this field, and nobody will ever really be able to be atop the resultant pile. I'm trying, but WOW it takes a lot of time. Till soon -- Katie
Such an insightful interview! I find Lofton's remarks on the intersection of religious studies and cultural criticism particularly provocative. Marie Griffith's critical empathy and Russell T. McCutcheon's "critics not caretakers" mantra come to mind. Beyond parochial definitions of religion, I'd be interested in hearing Lofton offer a meditation on dominant methodological configurations and disciplinary orientations that threatened to undermine her critical work. What constraining elements did she subvert in order to write Oprah in the way she did? Why, for her, is cultural criticism necessary to the historical enterprise? With what epistemological anxieties does such a move necessarily contend?

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