Kathryn Lofton’s Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon is a work, first and foremost, of cultural anthropology. The back cover confirms this fact. Yes, the book is about the incorporations of Oprah. But more significantly, it is an ethnography of “American astonishment,” of what it feels like to live before screens that enlighten and advertise and encompass (the virtual counterpart of living within the effervescent glare of studio lights and perpetual applause). Lofton captures, as few writers can, the everyday magic of our viral time—what, in the ritual grammar of Oprah, are referred to as “Aha! Moments.”
The Gospel of an Icon
Lofton tells me she shares with Jonathan Z. Smith the view that difference is the beginning of any good conversation. I am going to take her up on that notion and dwell here on a point of disagreement rather than those points, about the wild commingling of religion and consumption, upon which we agree. . . . I agree with Lofton that there is all too much about Oprah’s world and her devotees to make one wonder—at least from a certain highbrow academic standpoint—about “the intensity of their shallowness.” Call me an unreconstructed humanist, an overly hopeful liberal, but I doubt that banality is the sum of the matter, even for Oprah’s most frivolous (or lighthearted) fans.
O is for Oprah. O is for Ozarks. Can the second embrace the first? Though Lofton stays away from the issue of audience reactions, it is an intriguing question. Dubbed an “Evangelical Epicenter” by the Patchwork Nation project, my Ozarks county is a long way from Oprah’s Chicago studio.
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?)
Pervasive presence—or just ordinary ubiquity—is one of the main strategies in Oprah’s attempt to serve as a guide through the jumble of consumer choices, spiritual makeovers, and “original individuality” that is “secular” living in contemporary North America. Reading The Gospel of an Icon gave me a heightened awareness of this ubiquity, a new recognition of the way in which Oprah really is everywhere. As Lofton puts it in one of her clarifying turns of phrase: “She is the divine pervasion.”
In Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, Kathryn Lofton holds up a lustrous mirror to the polymorphously perverse dynamics of boom and bust, surplus and lack, and redemptive optimism and paranoid anxiety that characterize America (and much of the world) at the turn of the twenty-first century…. [Her] insight into the intense and extensive contemporary intra-activity of materiality and spirituality is a powerful explanatory tool. For example, it helps explain the explosive growth of global Neo-Pentecostal networks and cultures, which operate through mass media and popular culture to spread a gospel of health and wealth based on the notion that spiritual salvation, economic success, and physical well-being are mutually implicative.
I have been—and perhaps in some ways will always be—one of the denizens, the followers, the 100% skeptical and yet 100% “true believers” of and in the Oprah Nation. I have been both captivated by her programs about white supremacy in all-white Forsyth County, Georgia (which aired in 1986, my freshman year in college) and the Little Rock Nine’s steely and yet graceful fortitude (which aired in 1996, when I was in graduate school) and embarrassed by her ostentatious obsession with the material (see the “My Favorite Things” episodes from any year). Still I can’t deny that O’s consistent engagement with the cultural memory of the Civil Rights movement and her equally consistent obsession with spectacular consumerism are somehow entwined.
Focusing on Oprah as an icon/inkblot, we can use our reactions to her as a Rorschach test: What do we project onto Oprah and what analytical blind spots result from these projections and the discursive anxieties that underlie them? The uneasiness, evident in Lofton’s tone throughout the book, is an index of fundamental contradictions that many of us, as members of the intellectual elite, embody.
What a strange, provocative experience it has been to dwell with Kathryn Lofton’s Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon during these unsettling months. The seams of public life seem especially frayed of late—a precariousness underscored by disasters natural and political that keep coming. And yet ours is the radiant moment of endless possibility so central to Lofton’s subject, whose chief promise is that of a self that matters, that experiences abundance and becoming. It was with this coexistence in mind that I plunged into Oprah’s world.
Pilgrims immediately flooded the City of Chicago when Oprah Winfrey left this earth on Her 120th birthday. Millions of global devotees knew Her as The Oprah, and the institutional complex that She left behind became a holy city. After The Oprah Winfrey Show ended, in 2011, She decided not to move west, since California’s bankruptcy had made the establishment of a new media empire in Los Angeles seem increasingly implausible.
Whether you see “the secular” as a threat or a refuge, an option or an impulse, we are all trying to survive it, and one could argue that religious folks are trying to survive the secular far more ardently than secular folks are trying to survive the religious (at least in the United States). Of course, most of us fall somewhere in between—looking for and cobbling together meaning in and around the edges of religious and secular schools of thought and belief. Yet, for all of the boundary marking and making, secular and religious are not mutually exclusive; they are mutually constitutive.
And that’s where Lofton (along with an audience of millions) finds Oprah: at the intersection of religious and secular, in between spiritual and material, personal and communal, ritual and improvisational. And it is a brilliant discovery.
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.”
Oprah’s “gift is not her interviewing strategy but her confessional promiscuity.” While claiming only to tell you what she herself believes, Oprah “converts you to an idea, to the idea of her biographical revelations as a model for the world. She is the divine pervasion.” This is a largely passive religious practice. One watches the consumption and eclectic conversation of Oprah and her guests. The viewer participates by buying into Oprah’s interpretations and by buying the goods that Oprah offers and affirms. Paradoxically, the sure pathway to valuing oneself and finding one’s own truth is to follow in the way of Oprah, believing what she believes and possessing the cashmere sweater sets, elegant journals, and teak serving trays that she recommends. It is, in Lofton’s words, “the hegemony of her sway” that is the core of Oprah’s spiritual power.
Oprah Winfrey is the single most powerful woman in media. She presides over a multi-billion dollar empire as both mogul and star. As a model of American womanhood, she is distinctly contemporary: never before has the predominantly white, middle-class public accepted such an anomalous spokesperson. She is single, childless, and co-habiting with the distinctively named Stedman Graham, who guards the few slivers of privacy she has left; her soul mate is her best friend, Gayle King. These factors alone would seem to mark her populist origins as more of an iconoclast than an icon; a free-thinker, cultural feminist, and a liberal.
Oprah is a compelling object for the scholarly study of religion as a contemporary phenomenon. She is mass-mediated, commercial, and famous—and spiritual, if by that we mean something that is not encompassed by the institutional structure of an organized religion, but that belongs nonetheless to the domain of the academic study of “religion.” People consume, consult, and adore Oprah on a daily basis. In a word, she’s an icon. This is the term that Kathryn Lofton uses to describe Oprah, and it’s an appropriate choice, because it simultaneously alludes to religious imagery and popular branding, to sacred economies and the commercial market of media products. And the allusions are not mutually contradictory.
In Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, just out from University of California Press, Yale religion professor Kathryn Lofton orchestrates an encounter between American religious history and daytime television. Oprah Winfrey and the media empire that bears here name, Lofton finds, bear the rudiments of modern, neoliberal womanhood, conveyed through a resolutely non-religious spirituality.