Five TV Shows from the 90s that Shaped American Spirituality – WEEK 3 – The Oprah Winfrey Show

oprah 1Sometimes when the devil comes, he’s not wearing horns or carrying a pitchfork. Who would honestly be led astray by that anyway? No, he’s a fallen angel. As an angel, and supposed high-ranking angel at that, I’m assuming he’s intelligent and insightful (Gen. 3:1), beautiful in his own way (2 Cor. 11:14), and intimidatingly influential (Eph. 6:12; 1 Pet. 5:8). How persuasive would one have to be in order to convince an army of angels as well as the first humans to do the dumbest possible thing they possibly could and rebel against their God?

Therefore we should not be surprised if/when Satan comes through the message of someone who is talented in all of the ways mentioned above in addition to being a sympathetic, attractive figure.

Series Summary

oprah 3The Oprah Winfrey Show did not start or end in the 90s, but the 90s are when Oprah exploded in popularity and separated herself from the pack of afternoon talk shows.

Oprah Winfrey was born as the product of an affair between Vernon Winfrey, who was on Army leave, and Oprah’s mother, Vernita. In her childhood, bouncing around from Mississippi to Nashville to Milwaukee, Oprah encountered painful obstacles like poverty and repeated sexual abuse. But Oprah’s troubled upbringing always still incorporated church. In an article in Christianity Today (1 April 2011), LaTonya Taylor writes that “Even as a little girl, (Oprah) was attentive on Sunday mornings. . . In fact, the next day on the playground at Wharton Elementary School, Oprah would often repeat the Sunday sermon, using notes she had taken at church.  She called it the ‘Monday morning devotion.’  She had learned the Golden Rule, written it over and over, and carried it in her school bag.  She wanted to be a missionary. . .”

And a missionary, with her own unique theology, is exactly what Oprah would ultimately become. Just ask her. In a January 2011 interview with Piers Morgan, she said, “This isn’t about me. I am the messenger to deliver the message of redemption, of hope, of forgiveness, of gratitude, of evolving people to the best of themselves. So I am on my personal journey. My personal journey is to fulfill the highest expression of myself here as a human being here on earth.”
So make no mistake, Oprah has “pastored” more people than I, or most all pastors, ever will.

To this point, I still really haven’t summarized the show, only Oprah the woman. But, you see, there’s no way to understand the content of The Oprah Winfrey Show, or its impact on the nearly 22 million (mostly female) daily viewers, without understanding the woman herself.

When the show began broadcasting nationally in 1986, it followed the familiar format of most afternoon tabloid talk shows. However, by the mid-90s, as Winfrey gained more creative control, the show addressed broader societal topics such as geopolitics, spirituality, social issues with celebrity involvement, and of course there were episodes sprinkled in that included enormous giveaways, where audience members received items like new cars or vacations.

What was “magical” about the show?

So how did she do it? How did Oprah rise to become arguably the most influential woman on the planet, the first black American billionaire, and what Dr. James Eckman (author of “The Truth About Worldviews”) called “the high priestess of a Postmodern spirituality”.….“leading 22 million people down a path filled with spiritual half-truths and lies.”

In short, I think Oprah came off to people as real at a time when everyone was questioning what “real” really was. In 1988, TIME magazine put it like this:

“As interviewers go, she is no match for, say, Phil Donahue…What she lacks in journalistic toughness, she makes up for in plainspoken curiosity, robust humor and, above all empathy. Guests with sad stories to tell are apt to rouse a tear in Oprah’s eye…They, in turn, often find themselves revealing things they would not imagine telling anyone, much less a national TV audience. It is the talk show as a group therapy session.”

In some ways, it was simply a perfect storm of circumstances. Here sits our late twentieth century country, more affluent than any place in world history, but still filled with miserable people. The people are spiritually hungry after being taught for a hundred years that you cannot trust what you read in the Bible or what you hear from the so-called spiritual institutions. People were craving meaning, hope, and practical theology. And they’re living in an increasingly pluralistic society due to global mobilization and other modern communication means (like the internet) that shrunk the planet. And here comes along this young, tremendously likable, black woman, who, against all odds, becomes one of the biggest celebrities. As Kathryn Loften, a Yale professor of American and religious studies and author of “Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon” put it, Winfrey’s unlikely rise to spiritual leadership precisely explains her appeal: “She represents — in her race and gender and origins — being utterly outside established power. This is appealing to people who associate religion with controlling authority, rigid dogma or social adherence. This is a religion for those who don’t want to be religious, but want to feel revelation.” In other words, Oprah was the embodiment of a person who taught that you could leave behind organized religion, with all its stuffiness and corruption, but continue the spiritual pursuit. And such theology, at least in the world of Oprah, apparently leads to great success.

This belief was painfully obvious at times on Winfrey’s shows. Both her New Age pluralistic spirituality and her gigantic influence can be seen, by way of example, in her open support of Rhonda Byrne’s 2007 book “The Secret.” Oprah summarized the book and its philosophy by saying on her show, “We all, human beings here on earth, create our own reality. We create our own circumstances by the choices that we make and the choices that we make are fueled by our thoughts. So our thoughts are the most powerful thing that we have here on earth.” Winfrey’s stamp of approval on the book immediately transformed it into a NY Times best-seller.

Perhaps the best demonstration of Winfrey’s non-Christian spirituality was seen on a 2007 episode, where she had a very telling interaction with Christian audience members. Here’s a brief summary of the dialogue:

Winfrey:  One of the mistakes that human beings make is believing that there is only one way to live and that we don’t accept that there are diverse ways of being in the world, that there are millions of ways to please God and many ways, many paths to what you call God.

Audience member 1:  And I guess the danger that could be in … I mean it sounds great at the outset but if you really look at both sides. . . .

Winfrey:  There couldn’t possibly be just one way? . . .

Audience member 2:  You say there isn’t only one way.  There is one way and only one way and that is through Jesus.

Winfrey:  There couldn’t possibly be only one way with millions of people in the world!

The video of the dialogue became sensationally popular online, followed up by many further videos of Oprah popping up, espousing her spiritual beliefs which bible scholars pointed out were NOT compatible with orthodox Christian truths. For instance, Winfrey has stated that she used to believe that Jesus Christ came to die and save us from our sins but has come to understand that Jesus came  to teach us how to be enlightened people, as though Jesus was just another Buddhist zen master.

oprah 2Today, the orthodox Christian community has become a little more savvy in diagnosing Winfrey’s non-Christian spirituality, but for the most part, the damage has already been done. “Many will turn away from the faith….many false prophets will appear and deceive many people.” (Matt. 24:10-11)

Okay, so how has it influenced us…spiritually?

Postmodern New Age Movement spirituality defines truth in a self-centered manner.  No one’s ideas are allowed to be critiqued. Every system is perceived as equally valid. Truth is established through personal experience. And since experience is considered to be incredibly individual and usually private, you’re not allowed to challenge anyone’s experience because, after all, “you don’t know me.” And this is why the Confirmation verse of 21st century Postmodern spirituality has become “Do not judge.” (Matt. 7:1)

Oprah convinced millions of young American women that…..

1) …relationship with God comes apart from relationship with his Church.

The Bible says, “No, it doesn’t.” “(You are) fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household,built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (Eph. 2:20-22) According to the Bible, IF you are connected to the biblical God, you WILL be connected to his” body,” the Church.

2) …there are numerous routes to find God.

The Bible says, “No, there aren’t.”I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) In fact, the Christian faith is SO exclusive when it comes to salvation through faith in Jesus alone that the early Christians referred to themselves as members of “THE Way” (Acts 9:2). “One of MANY equally valid but obviously conflicting ways” or something else equally Postmodern was never seriously up for consideration. So, while I can easily label Oprah as a generous philanthropist, a barrier-breaking trailblazer, and very intelligent and successful woman, I can’t call her a Christian on the basis of how the Bible defines a true believer.

3) …the gospel is primarily about you, your feelings and opinions, your wants and desires, or your fulfillment.

Satan doesn’t make you spiritually blind by covering your eyes entirely. He does it by diverting your eyes from God to yourself. And any philosophy that has its main goal as personal empowerment is a devilish gospel that’s all about you. That is the devil’s gospel.

The actual gospel is about Jesus. Personal empowerment is a good thing, but according to the Bible, personal empowerment cannot be achieved apart from relationship to Jesus, the one you were built and redeemed for.

Consider the following….

OUR CREATION – “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” (Col. 1:16)

OUR REDEMPTION – In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.” (Eph. 1:7)

OUR CONVERSION – “When you were dead in your sins…God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins.” (Col. 2:13)

OUR NEW LIFE – “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Pet. 2:24)

OUR ETERNITY – “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Rom. 6:5)

OUR ENTIRE EXISTENCE – “For in him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)

See, according to the Bible, my life is not about me. Jesus’ life was about me. But now my life is about him being in me and me in him. Part of the mystery of the gospel is that only if I lose my life for him will I actually find true life in him.

NET takeaway: Personal empowerment, generous deeds, emotional healing, and an open-mind that leads you to show acts of love to those who are physically, economically, or even theologically different than you are all beautiful byproducts of the gospel. But they are NOT the gospel. It’s important to be able to tell the difference.

oprah 4

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