How Oprah Became a Messiah: Prophet and Profit

Paul Harvey

As Oprah departs, to much media coverage, let us turn once more to our contributor Kathryn Lofton for a summing up of "What is Oprah"?

K. Lofton's book Oprah: Gospel of an Icon, has engendered a lengthy, multi-part, fascinating set of responses from numerous other scholars at Immanent Frame, and on the occasion of Oprah's departure from the network airwaves, Lofton's reflections on her career and meaning in the context of American religious history can be found at CNN Belief Blog, in the Los Angeles Times, in the New York Daily News, and in the Washington Post. Over at Killing the Buddha, Nathan Schneider also provides these links as well as a link to his own interview with Lofton, and gives his own thoughts, here.

Perhaps the easiest place to connect in to all this discussion is at the piece at the CNN Belief Blog, where our valued colleague writes:

As she departs from her ritual slot, there will be a vacuum for some. Yet if history has taught us anything, it is that the void will not be left gaping for long. “The false messiah is as old as the hope for the true Messiah,” wrote Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig. “He is the changing form of this changeless hope.”

Oprah represented humanity’s ceaseless interest in spiritual responses to personal problems. We now live in her world: one of first-person confessions, required makeovers, and spiritual consumption.

The measure of her consequence will be not in whether or not she mattered to you, but whether the world you occupy looks more like hers than you know.


Anonymous said…
If may respond to Katie's posted comments, I wonder if she is really satisfied with a notion of a generalized "false messiah." In the American context, might there not be something very particular, concrete, and determinate about Oprah precisely because of her background: the black woman who was unable to read books growing up on MS and TN; the one who, precisely because of her difficult journey, can nurture, counsel, and sympathize with us (the "us" being a large crowd, but a significant number of white Americans, especially women), and feel our pain; the one whose story has a feel of redemption and having made it (not to in any way deemphasize Katie's trenchant treatment of consumerism's inextricable role in the Oprah narrative and its appeal), etc. I suppose my point is that Katie's quoted comments seems to departicularize the specific history of Oprah's narrative in an American and racial context by this reference to "false messiahs" coming and going. But perhaps I'm reading way too much into this. In any case, Katie's work is receiving much deserved attention.

Curtis J. Evans
Kathryn Lofton said…
Oh, Curtis. You speak to the heart of the tormenting problem of playing intellectual in the public sphere. Chapter 4 of the book takes up (in doubtlessly tedious detail) exactly the specificity you discuss. Does that specificity translate well to these kinds of publications? There have been good debates in this blog about that very question, and I consider Randall Stephens (and Sutton and Harvey etc.) models of how to stay subtle while still facing media redaction. I admit I struggled on these points, and found in my editorial encounters that context almost always gets edited out. I don't mean to grouse -- I just ask again something we've asked before, namely: what caricatures are acceptable costs of scholarship in popular media?
Mike Diaz said…
I just got done reading Kathryn Lofton's book. It was EXTREMELY difficult to read, but really cool....full "aha" moments..hahaha...yeah I actually needed a dictionary half the time. As an undergraduate student here at SDSU, I was required to read book for one of Prof. Blum's class. Its crazy how everything on Oprah seems to have been mixed with religion and consumption. As I recall growing up, materialism was bad, but now Oprah had some how managed to make it ok.

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