Oprah, the Evangelist

by Vince

Mark Oppenheimmer analyzes the religious approach by her show and compares her to antebellum evangelist Charles Grandison Finney:

Ms. Winfrey has religious antecedents besides the black church. Kathryn Lofton argues in her new book, “Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon,” that to understand Ms. Winfrey it helps to know Charles Grandison Finney, the great antebellum evangelist.

In his 1830 revival campaign in Rochester, Mr. Finney formalized the “anxious bench,” a pew or altar where sinners congregated while members of the crowd prayed for them to repent or become Christians. A whole plotline revolved around the bench, and worshipers eagerly anticipated its ritual. Who would sit there? Would they be saved? “At every point,” Dr. Lofton writes, “the preacher prodded, focused, named and decried.”

Dr. Lofton argues that in an atmosphere suffused with Ms. Winfrey’s beliefs in miracles, angels and pervasive spirituality, audience members got to see guests participate in “the familiar ritual turn of daily confession and rejuvenation.” Whether the day’s show featured the organization expert decluttering somebody’s home or “confessions of a once-upon-a-time Haitian child slave,” the redemptive plot arc, the payoff of deliverance, was the same.

And like the best hellfire preachers, Ms. Winfrey could be merciless in exacting those confessions. “Guests are forced to admit their worst transgressions,” Dr. Lofton writes, “to say precisely how they felt when they pulled the trigger, for example, or, in Governor McGreevey’s case” — that is James E. McGreevey of New Jersey, who resigned after cheating on his wife and coming out as gay — “to describe the sordid locations of his clandestine sexual encounters.”

Oppenheimmer doesn’t like Oprah’s use of “seeing your suffering as a desirable experience” for change. Oprah did rise from being raped at age 8 (or 9) to where she is today. But many know (Oprah included) that you do not have to have such terrible experiences to reach the stars.

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