I begin, perhaps inevitably, with a confession: I am just not an Oprah sort of woman, a possibility that Kathryn Lofton allows for in the latter half of Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, but which had dawned on me well before reading that far. It’s not that I have anything against Oprah. I’d never particularly minded the broadcast of her show into public spaces by default, never found unpleasing her face on each cover of the ubiquitous O, never faulted her choice of the book club titles that subsequently line the best-seller racks in their new, O-embossed covers. It’s just that I’d never had cause to seek out any more Oprah. Nevertheless, by the time I got hold of Lofton’s book, in February, I was sure I’d given Oprah enough of my attention to conjure a felicitous scene of reading. Carrying the book with me to the dentist’s office, the boarding gate, the parents’ gallery at gymnastics, I found strangers unusually keen for conversation. A book in one’s hands, an avid, breathing interlocutor at one’s side: how rare a setting in our hypermediated age! Trust me, I gave these occasions my best. Our exchanges typically began like this:
Affable Stranger, nodding warmly toward my book: You’re an Oprah fan.
Me: I’m a fan of the author’s, actually. Kathryn Lofton. She’s a friend. She’s brilliant. She teaches at Yale. It’s a book about religion, partly, and consumer culture, and—
A.S: You don’t like Oprah?
From which point I was outmaneuvered.
It’s striking to me how often, with what little resistance, the many scholarly forums this book has now generated have likewise settled into for-and-against discussions of Oprah. This no doubt is tribute to Lofton’s remarkable creation of what Daphne Brooks calls a “self-help meta-empire of scholars trying to come to terms with their own Oprah addictions.” It’s also, perhaps unavoidably, an Oprah effect: What other books have so readily pressed scholars into sharing our experiences, our feelings, about the subjects they engage? (Could we imagine Born Again Bodies prompting a gabfest on our struggles with weight loss and gain? The Mormon Question drawing out our deepest thoughts on monogamy alternatives? The New Metaphysicals eliciting a coming-clean on the checks we wrote to the astrologer?) There’s a terrific aliveness in much of this commentary, variously wicked, righteous, nostalgic, surrendered, charmed—the “awed, orgasmic, thrilled, worried, and converted” oh in O. I wonder, though, whether our eagerness to make discussions of Lofton’s book into referenda on Oprah Winfrey isn’t also an attempt to skirt some of the challenges Lofton so dexterously poses.
Lofton’s book is part self-described “dorky parlor trick,” part social critique, part nineties cult-stud homage, less perhaps to Oprah than to the kinds of media (game shows, tabloids, Victoria’s Secret catalogs) to which that pre-9/11 era loved to respond with analyses both earnest and knowing, the moral of each usually being some version of go with it, though Lofton doesn’t let us off the hook quite as easily. It is also, the author spells out, an intervention on the academic study of religion, an effort to help an evidently somewhat lame discipline find its “stride again within and through studies of the secular that made the ‘agent’ its hero and ‘choice’ its credal cry.” Each of these is a virtuosic performance, served up in as intimate and incandescent prose as one could hope to find in any genre. And each is lined with some honest ambivalence and prudent caginess that do nothing, in the end, to keep them from bleeding into one another or working at cross-purposes. This is to say that Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon is more than the sum of its parts.
The “dorky parlor trick” is Lofton’s ability, as she puts it, “to connect Oprah with almost any aspect of U.S. religious history, from Wovoka to Carrie Nation.” This, I suspect, is the larger part of the project whose ideal audience Lofton imagines to be made up of her graduate and undergraduate mentors—the book Lofton wrote for her teachers. It is also the book’s most teachable aspect: “a great way to test theories of myth, ideology, and ritual for students new to religious studies abstractions” and as great a way to illustrate dynamic moments and signal motifs of American religious history through the focusing lens and gathering telos of Oprah Winfrey. The Puritan spiritual relation, the slave testimony, the anxious bench, the emergence of the evangelical woman preacher, the feminization of American culture, the businessman’s revival: You, and Oprah, are there. Order your classroom copies now.
The path on which Lofton aims to set our Oprah-rehabbed and -retrofitted discipline of religious studies is a bit harder to discern than this remarkable refraction of American Religion 101, but the message seems to be: Get over the pastoral training model, stop assuming that the religious and the secular can be so neatly cordoned off from one another, and show a little less tenderness toward the religious subjects who’re going to get bullied on the intellectual playground whether we try to shelter them from abuse or not. Stop defending, stop caretaking. “If there is a critical edge to the book,” Lofton explains in an interview, “it is to goad us to be less worried about explaining our subjects to their cultured despisers, and instead to pursue 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.”
What this translates into is a kind of knowing objectivity, a passionate disinterestedness. It makes for a far edgier critical edge than Lofton here lets on, and one that she herself seems always at the point of disowning. On being asked repeatedly in earlier presentations of her material 1) whether she likes Oprah, and 2), the more panicky question, what is she doing to Oprah, Lofton states calmly: “My reply to these two inquiries has been the same: I am studying what we’re watching and what it consistently conveys.” With this explanation, Lofton notes, listener dissatisfaction abounds, and its tough-love targets pointedly include the weak-kneed among us in religious studies who may have genuflected too long at the altars of the guild. “For the field of religious studies, such critical attention is one way we sidestep the pieties of our objects in order to discern patterns in those traditions, sects, scriptures, and rites that correlate to other cultural objects.” This is the less antic side to the parlor trick of teaching what we do. To the Oprah acolyte, the Bible-believer, the twice-born soul in our classes who asks why we had to bring cold, critical scrutiny to bear on “the one thing, the one thing that helps me, hugs me, returns to me and sees me,” we say, I’m only doing my job.
But that is not all. This Zen-like explanation of her project—I study what we watch and what it says—is insufficient also for Lofton, who adds more in a circuitous footnote: “In her examination of [French literary historian] Alice Kaplan, Laura Levitt puts well my own resistance to naming first-person feelings within a text so obviously devotional to its object. Channeling Kaplan’s perspective, Levitt writes, ‘She is fully absorbed in this work. Given this, she seems to choose not to talk back.’” Lofton, we infer from the note, chooses similarly not to talk back. Levitt expands on Kaplan’s “cho[ice] not to talk back” to her subject, which for Lofton captures something important about her own authorial position. “She is not only a full-fledged scholarly prosecutor, but also defense attorney, judge, and jury all in one.” Knowledge-production, Lofton reminds us, is trickster work.
The Kaplan book to which Levitt refers is The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach, an account of the charismatic and widely read French novelist and editor who sided with Germany during the Occupation. Brasillach’s case is compelling because he was convicted for “intellectual crimes”—for his media celebrity, as it were—and not for the more direct involvements for which others in the Vichy regime were tried. Many French luminaries who deplored his politics nevertheless appealed for Brasillach’s release on the grounds of intellectual freedom; many others did not. Kaplan explains her project in an interview: “There aren’t many intellectuals today—and certainly not many literary intellectuals—who have the political influence and power that [Brasillach] had in France in a moment of national crisis. What power do we want intellectuals to have in our society, and what do we trust them to do with it? Do we even have intellectuals anymore?”
Do we have intellectuals of consequence anymore? Maybe not. We have Oprah. What is this power Oprah has? What collective ideations does it nurture? On what investments in the national imaginary does it draw? What do we want, or trust, her to do with it? “Why do we need her so much?” It is in sorting out these kinds of questions that Lofton plays prosecutor, defense attorney, judge, and jury all in one: courtroom drama as one-woman play. “The question for cultural critics,” says Lofton, “is whether Oprah’s progress is a sort of progress to endorse or decry.” Lofton endorses, she decries, she refuses either to endorse or decry. Thus a fellow scholar who remarks on the “thinness” of much of what passes today for spirituality meets a defense attorney’s question: Against what religious baseline might “thickness” be measured? Another who laments Oprah’s Book Club’s “focus on the therapeutic and relentlessly self-improving” for deflecting the power of great literature to “derange” and “disturb” is gently chided for missing “places of conversation not necessarily encompassed by some impossibly ‘pure’ concept of literary production.” Oprah’s ministry, Lofton insists, is “not hoodwink.” Even so, Lofton deftly exposes Oprah’s own literary and pastoral practice as, for lack of a word, thin. “Winfrey never admits to a personal recalibration through reading,” Lofton observes; reading for Oprah is instead “always reconfirmation of what she knew and what others need to learn.” In Lofton’s rendering of their encounter, Ted Haggard, on Oprah’s couch, comes across as the more sympathetic and theologically subtle of the two.
Contributing to the frequent tonal shifts is Lofton’s stylistic decision at times to incorporate others’ phrases and sentences into her own prose, duly marked off in quotes and footnoted but otherwise without introduction or inflection. This makes for a more seamless read when there are a lot of names on every page to begin with, and perhaps a generous, gang’s-all-here kind of scholarly inclusiveness. But I found the choice initially puzzling on two counts: one, because Lofton is in every instance the better writer; and two, because it matters whether you’re channeling, say, Lauren Berlant or Leonard Sweet. Unless, maybe, it doesn’t: unless one suggestion being communicated here is that, in the same measure that the “long story of free markets in the West deposits us at the door of Oprah Winfrey,” so this spectacular embodiment of the female complaint (the “naturalized logic of women’s suffering,” of women’s endlessly deferred and disappointed need) is where the evangelical tradition in America has been leading us all along. How has the trajectory of American religious history brought us to this place, this Oprah?
A thumbnail history might go like this: The Protestant sanctification of the commonplace, the discovery of divine light in the mundane array of objects and acts taken up by a priesthood of believers, proves a boon to American merchants and clerics alike. As Protestantism finds itself more and more at home in the New World, its religious dispositions and their modes of production become less separable from everyday life—indeed, they come to make up the fabric of everyday life. This means your life. The erstwhile Puritan discipline of self-scrutiny brings the things of the world increasingly into its purview, reading them for the shimmering glint of spiritual favor. Advertising, the most aspiring of evangelical preaching’s bastard offspring, offers the promise of entry into a more charismatic life in exchange for the dissipation of spiritual and economic capital: buy, believe, buy and believe more. Consumer choice and religious option open along the same paths, obscuring relational possibilities and imperatives that might bind you to a particular past, a more circumscribed future, to anything that might constrain the unfolding of your own best life. Women gain ground in the commercial revolution faster and more easily than they wrest standing from church authorities, leaving the latter to play catch-up with the consumer culture they helped to foster. Buy and believe. Find what works for you. Purveyors of spirituals and temporals alike ratchet up the “imperatives of comfort nestling modern women in a language of self-service.” “Self-service,” here, is pitch-perfect: Because you’re worth it. And by the way, you’re on your own. We’re now in Oprah’s world—“a world in which we find alluring the templates to which we are fitted,” as Jason Bivins gorgeously puts it, “a melancholy whose song of empowerment sells us resignation as the hope we know will be dashed.”
After learning that Oprah would be the subject of Lofton’s first book, I bought an issue of O Magazine for a train trip but ended up swapping it, gratefully, for my seatmate’s copy of Vogue. (Both magazines, granted, might be said to bank on whatever lack I bring to them; both feature glossy spreads of women who have more shoes, more shine, more things, and in O’s case, more serenely ordered closets and inner lives than I have. But Vogue foregoes the stealth jeremiads that present this gulf as one I must desire to close and can, starting now, with a chastened and redoubled commitment to living by truths I know by heart but have somehow let slide.) More surprising and satisfying, at least at first, was my one deliberate encounter with Oprah’s Book Club. In September 2009, Oprah christened as her book club selection a short story collection I’d just finished reading, Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan. Like Oprah, I had found the book stunning, in as literal a sense as the word allows—after reading the final story, “My Parent’s Bedroom,” I don’t think I could talk. Set in ravaged stretches of various African nations, Say You’re One of Them shows violence, want, and depravity at their most harrowing and deeply entrenched, and religion and politics at the limits of the good and evil each can effect, all through the impossibly clear eyes of narrating children. (Akpan, a Nigerian Jesuit priest, turned to fiction after being unable to find a publisher for the newspaper editorials he wanted to write.) Say You’re One of Them is as powerful an example of literature’s power to “disturb” and “derange” as one is likely to find anywhere and, I subsequently learned from reading Lofton, a most unusual choice for an Oprah’s Book Club selection.
As Lofton tells us, the kind of book Oprah endorses is one that either “prescribes a better reality [or] posits an alternative reality to which you could escape.” Say You’re One of Them profoundly does neither, as the strong showing of readers’ remorse in postings to the book’s Amazon reviews page attests. (A sampling: “I had faith in Oprah’s selection and figured that each story would be better than the last. That never happened; instead each story was more horrific that the last.” “I feel the same way! I thought I was missing something! I STRUGGLED to finish the book. I am so relieved I can now move on to more enjoyable reads.” “I wanted a respite from my own life and this was not it. . . . Save your money and buy a happy book, even if it is not a literary masterpiece.” “I didn’t care for it and think Oprah might have missed the mark on this one.”) What was Oprah thinking? What did Say You’re One of Them confirm for Oprah that she already knew, that her audiences needed to hear?
Perhaps, as Lofton’s chapter on Oprah’s lavish philanthropy suggests, that she herself was already busy supplying the happy ending on which her readers were counting. “We are going to change the face of Africa,” Oprah announces in her 2007 prime-time special Building a Dream, which documents the construction of The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy near Johannesburg, South Africa. Where existing schools in the district were overcrowded and bare of comforts, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy would accommodate its hand-picked scholarship girls on a sprawling campus that included a yoga studio, two theaters, a beauty salon, oversized classrooms, and tastefully decorated living and dining spaces. Every detail, from the high-thread-count sheets to the O-embroidered backpacks, would be lovingly chosen for the girls by Oprah. “‘Some cups feel better in your hand than others. . . I love this one for them,’ [Oprah] says, holding it.” To cautions that the Academy’s operation introduces potentially destabilizing disparities into a setting where administrators’ salaries may exceed the income of local families a thousand times, and where many of the boarders return home to sleep on dirt floors, Oprah bristles against the implication that her pupils deserve less than the bounty she supplies for their betterment. The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy, concludes Lofton drily, “is a forty-million dollar exhibition of accessories.”
Let desperate families, ambitious religious leaders, and propped-up regimes do their best and worst: what Africa really needs, the deferred moral of Say You’re One of Them may turn out to be, is a daily dose of Oprah. And if that doesn’t work? Before embarking on the Africa makeover, we learn from Lofton, Oprah shared with audiences her failed experiment with the Cabrini-Green apartments in Chicago some years earlier. Her intervention there began with the extraordinarily generous, but, she says, “misguided idea of moving the families out of the projects and into new homes”; it ended with the sullen ingratitude of her beneficiaries, sunk blankly in their “rooms full of things.” The painful experience, Oprah reflected, instilled a valuable lesson: “What I now know for sure is that a gift isn’t a gift unless it has meaning.” If the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy, since beset by a challenge or two, goes the way of Cabrini-Green, we can still be confident, under Oprah’s direction, of learning something important about ourselves.
Katherine Pratt Ewing finds the ambivalence Lofton sustains throughout much of the book to reproduce a “classic highbrow-lowbrow debate” among academic elites, a tired nexus of “old political ideologies and dichotomies” we keep in circulation to confirm our own exceptionalism. Whether we lament the shallowness of popular culture or admit to liking it on the down low, we show ourselves to be driven, says Ewing, by “class anxieties surrounding taste and the discernment of quality as manifest in our ability to interpret . . . ‘deeply.’” Lofton’s (and my) “uneasiness” with Oprah’s self-help commodity fetishism, Ewing charges, “arises precisely at those moments when we draw the line and pass judgment on her appeals to the lowbrow middle-American consumer,” thus disavowing our own “commodified selves as a mark of class status and taste.”
But Lofton brilliantly helps us to see that Oprah’s world is one in which, for better or worse, such discriminations no longer serve. David Foster Wallace’s personal library, it turns out, was crammed with carefully annotated self-help books of what an unfazed devotee calls “the best-sellingest, Oprah-level cheesiness.” In All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly find the value of truly great literature to reside, not in “depth,” but in its openness to the shining moment that skims past all irresolution and perplexity, the existential morass in which “deep” thinkers want fatally to bog us down. (Dreyfus and Kelly, of Berkeley and Harvard respectively, sportily call these “whoosh” moments; Oprah, more confident of controlling the religious associations she puts into play, names them simply “Spirit.”) This is how we survive the secular, the anxiety of choosing. In addition to the beatific whoosh, Dreyfus and Kelley also commend the power of ritual to bump us through the everyday:
If it is the warmth of [a cup of] coffee on a winter’s day that you like, then drinking it in a cozy corner of the house, perhaps by a fire with a blanket, in a cup that transmits the warmth to your hands might well help to bring out the best in this ritual. If it is the striking black color of the coffee that attracts your eye and enhances the aroma, then perhaps a cup with a shiny white ceramic interior will bring this out. But there is no single answer to the question of what makes the ritual appealing, and it takes experimentation and observation, with its risks and rewards, to discover the meaningful distinctions yourself. . . . When one has learned these skills and cultivated one’s environment so that it is precisely suited to them, then one has a ritual rather than a routine, a meaningful celebration of oneself[.]
The difference between Oprah and these distinguished philosophers is that Oprah would have told us where to buy the cup.
Is Oprah inescapable? Lofton suggests as much. “Even if you want to avoid her, even if you have avoided her, you have not (you cannot) . . . . It is Oprah’s world. We’re just buying in it, buying into it, and believing it.” A quotation Lofton drops in from de Certeau on resistance—“If it is true that the grid of ‘discipline’ is everywhere becoming clearer and more extensive, it is all the more urgent to discover how an entire society resists being reduced to it”—serves in this context more as credo for Oprah’s program of “revolutionary self-improvement, first-person fable, and consumer choice” than as salvo to any who would circumvent it. Daphne Brooks’s moving and lovely account of how Oprah fit into the days she spent seeing her mother through illness—“Chemo in the mornings, lunch in the early afternoons, a nap, a run to the pharmacy, Oprah, and the shift into dinner and bedtime”—provides welcome proof that not all in Oprah’s world ends in a spiral of unsated hungers, depleted connections, and compensatory assertions (“celebrations”) of self. For Brooks and her mother, Oprah “was the voice of frivolity and quotidian delight in the midst of anxiety . . . . She was affective energy—faith, comfort, joy, Aretha-charged ‘spirit in the dark’ release in the face of the unknown.” Where a Kathryn Lofton or I see giftiness, Brooks finds a genuine gift.
To note this, though, is still to be toting up what works or doesn’t work for us about Oprah, where perhaps what’s called for is no longer a tally but a disaggregation of what Lofton has so richly contextualized as Oprah’s place in the history of American religion. What kinds of books might this one foster? Lofton sets an extraordinarily high bar, but she alludes to a few possibilities. “Each of these assistant pastors deserves book-length treatment of his or her own,” she suggests of Oprah’s lifestyle gurus, “since each of them has cultivated an elaborate online, televised, and textual empire of his or her own as a result of the association with Winfrey.” Or again, the kind of critical iconography Lofton undertakes in relation to Oprah “is worthy of many books—from books speaking to the difference between cotton swabs and Angela Jolie, from Ford Sedans to Cheerios, the iconic brand subjects are infinite.” Lofton, I’m confident, isn’t suggesting that these are the books most worth writing, or that the most fitting objects of scholars’ attention are forms of cultural production whose media saturation aspires to Oprah-level. But if Oprah is truly everywhere and all, if she is “no less than the culmination of the religious now,” as Lofton avers, then where else is there for scholars of American religion to go? Surely the history that begins in the Reformation and culminates in our restless makeover dreams is but one ending, one point of departure, one story of many that might be told. The books that end up doing justice to the rigors and beauty of this one, I’m betting, won’t be celebrity biographies of Dr. Phil or semiotic studies of cereal boxes. Rather, they’ll be books that somehow manage, with all of Lofton’s probity and care, to sift again through the makings of Oprah’s world—the accretions of history and fantasy, the “determined contingency and incurable excess” that go to its relentless aspiration to totality, its seemingly inevitable sway—and then to decide what other worlds might be made of them.