The Gospel of an Icon:

Spirituality: what remains?

posted by Webb Keane

By placing Oprah Winfrey in the context of American religion, Kathryn Lofton’s Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon raises several questions of more general import. First, it’s worth noting the double move that occurs in drawing on the popular categories of “religion” and “spirituality” for the purposes of scholarly interpretation. Large numbers of Americans tell pollsters that they are not religious, but that, at the same time, they consider themselves to be spiritual. Conversely, by identifying Oprah as spiritual, Lofton can thereby write about her as a religious figure. To use the concept of spirituality analytically is enormously difficult. There comes a point in reading this book when one can’t help wondering what would not count as spiritual? But, of course, that all-encompassing capacity is an important part of the popular appeal of this category in the first place. In a helpful moment of specificity, Lofton reports that Oprah is opposed to religion, which is identified with “exclusive rituals, legislating hierarchies, codes of membership.” Spirituality, by contrast, would presumably be what remains once these impediments have been removed. It is not created or bestowed, but uncovered. In this respect, spirituality is the product of that purification characteristic of what I have called the “moral narrative of modernity.” Historically, religious purification often aims to eliminate barriers between humans and divinity. But in the form of contemporary spirituality, it seems to be doing so in the process of serving other functions, with somewhat different sources of appeal. Rituals, hierarchies and their legislations, codes and their memberships—what from one angle of vision help constitute the very sociality of religion—are, from another angle, precisely what come between people. They are seen by someone like Oprah as divisive. In this view, they are like race, the subject of the chapter in which the passage cited above occurs, in that they impose artificial and invidious distinctions onto an otherwise universal, undifferentiated humanity. If the general value of human universality, however, is part of the public, and perhaps the most high-minded, appeal of spirituality, there is a more immediate, personal draw promised by the impulse to the purification of religion that spirituality manifests. The rituals, rules, codes, and hierarchies that spirituality would do away with are barriers between me and my own true self. Or, to put this in less seemingly paradoxical form, they exemplify all that inhibits a certain kind of self-mastery.

This brings me to a second characteristic of the idea of spirituality as exemplified by Oprah: its ties to the idea of freedom and well-being. As Winnifred Sullivan and others have pointed out, contemporary American spirituality is a point of convergence between religious or ethical views of well-being and medical and psychiatric ones. (It’s neither irrelevant nor, I think, trivial to note how moralized is the vocabulary around sinful desserts and virtuous exercise.) Again, I think we can see here inflections of a moral narrative, insofar as, in this view, well-being is something for which, ultimately, only the sufferer can be responsible, and that responsibility is inseparable from choices. The freer the choices, the greater the responsibility.

This brings us to one of the other major themes of Lofton’s book: commerce. After all, Oprah is not only an extraordinarily successful entrepreneur; she also offers herself as a guide to successful consumer choices for the beleaguered. Now, the interesting question here, I think, is not about “materialism.” It is no longer surprising to note the ubiquitous materiality of religions (for details, see any issue of the journal Material Religion), which purification movements often problematize but can never eliminate. Perhaps it would be more productive to explore the links among Oprah’s commercialism, spiritual agency, and the idea of freedom. If spirituality is what’s left when you have eliminated the institutional and theological authority of religions, the purification process must also emancipate something that those authorities had suppressed. In the context of the commodity, the resulting freedom is manifested as self-enhancing choices. Oprah’s success depends on her capacity to anticipate—or create (a vexed question, this)—and appeal to the desires of her viewers and readers. She isn’t in a position to command adherence, and it’s not too hard to imagine her undergoing a precipitous fall from grace. Her shopping advice includes cashmeres and soaps, candles and chocolates. But to the extent that these commodities are posed as responses to problems of well-being, they are not ends in themselves. That is, they are not inherently good. Their purpose is to enable the consumer to manipulate her inner states. They are material vehicles for the mastery of immaterial dimensions of the self. Thus, the consumer goods are offered up as more or less emancipatory instruments in the hands of the spiritual person, who is thereby enabled to become an agent over his own self.

A final question concerns the place of American spirituality in the current historical context. If we are in the midst of a global religious revival similar to earlier great awakenings, it is strikingly cross-denominational. And if we glance at the side of the globe opposite to Oprah’s America, we find remarkably similar spiritual celebrities. Indonesia’s Aa Gym and Ary Ginanjar, to mention only two of the best known (well studied by James Hoesterey, Daromir Rudnyckyj, and Julia Day Howell), have been hugely successful in purveying a spiritualized, highly commodified, mass-mediated form of Islam. Like Oprah, their media empires are vast, they sell a wide variety of goods, and offer branded advice on everything from business management to parenthood. (Interestingly, Aa Gym’s loss of popularity came after he took a second wife in 2006, a misstep in which reliance on the letter of Islamic legality was insufficient to protect him from the wrath of his female followers, whose expectations of marital sentiment he had betrayed.) Like Oprah, they promise both personal well-being and worldly success to a nervous, privatized middle class. Certainly these celebrities and their audiences have been influenced by the Euro-American North (some have even hired consultants from the ranks of American televangelists), but they can’t presume, as Oprah might, a shared history of national Protestant exceptionalism and optimism. Gone global, spirituality’s success should be taken very seriously but not explained too quickly.

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One Response to “Spirituality: what remains?”

  1. Webb Keane astutely points out that spirituality is risky as an analytical concept because of its generality. As he incisively notes, “one can’t help wondering what would not count as spiritual?” Indeed this was a problem I grappled with in my book, Spiritual Economies. Perhaps ironically, while I was uncomfortable with the lack of specificity in the concept of spirituality, this was precisely what those who participated in the research for the book found so useful. They could argue for example, that while their workplace training programs invoked explicitly Islamic history and doctrine, Islam was a surface manifestation of a deeper, underlying, “universal” spirituality (that was indeed shared by all religious traditions). Thus, the market for their spiritual training product was not only Muslims, but those of all religious backgrounds in Indonesia and around the world.

    Importantly, their arguments were not grounded in mysticism or unknowability, but rather in that most ascetic of modern knowledge practices, science. Thus, spiritual reformers drew on the work of the UC San Diego neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran who they asserted had “found the existence of the God spot in the human brain.” (Ramachandran’s research demonstrates that a certain region of the brain is more active during religious activity). These practices drew on arguments that Webb Keane earlier identified in his essay “Sincerity, ‘Modernity,’ and the Protestants” and the conceptualization of spirituality that Paul Rabinow noted in his book French DNA. Representing spirituality as an object internal to all humans was part of the creation of what I called a “spiritual economy” in which this object—spirituality—once formed and understood as intrinsic to the human could be the site of management, intervention, and manipulation.

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