Oprah is everywhere.
She is omnipresent, and she’s omnipotent. Her converts would argue she is also omniscient, especially with her monthly oracle — O, The Oprah Magazine — pontificating the principles of self-help, self-love, and self-giving. Although national television has programmed her to be in our lives for just one hour a day, Monday to Friday, her influence is ever present. Her image floods newsstands showing her face on just about every magazine cover including her own. Bookstores stockpile their inventory with her choice of the book of the month. And presidential hopefuls genuflect before her to win voters. And just when you have run out of breath trying to keep up with her — or trying to run away — her ever-recurring image pops up either to resuscitate you or to asphyxiate you with her new cable show Oxygen. In exhorting America to rise to its higher moral ground, Oprah has not only altered the content of television talk shows, she has drastically changed the the venue where spirituality is normally discussed and worshipped.
With television seemingly a more welcoming venue for worship and inclusion of all people, especially for the ecclesiastically shy or abused, by just flicking on a TV switch from the comfort zone of home, Oprah’s show appears to offer hope for those banished from the church’s purview. While Oprah is certainly no Dr. Laura-who depicts lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as “deviant” and “biological errors” — she is surely no savior either. Although her show is devoid of the traditional church dogma, doctrines, and denunciation of us as God’s children, Oprah’s gospel harms LGBT not only in its silence about us, but also in her amorphous construction of spirituality that is devoid of sexuality, gender, race, and power.
In speaking about the spirit, Oprah wrote in her premier issue of O, “Beneath the surface of all physical encounters and experiences is the extraordinary and the ordinary, as well as a deeper meaning. That deeper meaning is spirit. Spirituality isn’t something we create. It just is. It exists in all things, all the time. It is the essence of who you are. You are spirit expressing itself.”
As spirit expressing ourselves we inhabit physical bodies. While the spirit is transcendent and “other worldly,” it is the body that is firmly grounded in this world. Our bodies are the physical and spiritual manifestation of human existence. To talk about our spirit as separate from our bodies maintains the millennial long abuses of racism, sexism and homophobia that African Americans, women, and LGBT people are still struggling against today. And, with its origin in Western Christian thought demonizing the body as inferior to the spirit, this false dichotomy and erotic phobia just adds another damnation to Christian disdain for bodily pleasure.
As Pauline Albrecht, a lesbian seminarian at Andover-Newton Theological School in Newton, Mass. posed to me, “In Oprah trying to bring a spiritual message down to us, and in trying to promote a higher good what is she really feeding us with? In developing herself as an authority on moral values what theological frame is she using and what are the underlying principles? Is it Christian? Is it ecumenical?”
One of Oprah’s disciples who frequents her show is the Zen-like guru Gary Zukav, author of the bestseller The Seat of the Soul. Zukav desperately wants to include all people in the struggle for human acceptance by naively emphasizing that we all are on a level playing field. “There is no such thing as a tragedy in this life; no such thing as unfairness. . . There is no such thing as a victim,” he read from his book on the show. Oprah followed with her response, “I love that.”
In a spiritually starved culture — where the centrality of American churches now give way to the burgeoning plurality of expressions and venues that we see with the influx of Eastern and New Age religions — spirituality has become a cottage industry. In turning spirituality into a commodity, we have set up a marketplace where we pick and choose from religious traditions to please our spiritual palate. Where we may divorce these religions from the traditions and communities which they were created in, thrived in and struggled in, we have not divorced them from their abuses and powers of domination that continue to choke the spiritual lives of oppressed people; thus maintaining the status quo.
Oprah has good intentions, and she has put together a palatable spirituality that America is devouring. However, as she tries to take America on the high road, Oprah reminds me of the old adage “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” For LGBT people not included on that road, it is hell nonetheless.