- Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon
Since 2011 marked the end of the twenty-year television run of the Oprah Winfrey Show, it seems fitting that an examination of Winfrey’s growth and empire would place the icon’s success into perspective. Kathryn Lofton’s Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon gives a thorough study of Winfrey and Harpo Productions that not only offers explanations into her success and influence, but also opens the door to further inquiry by religious studies scholars.
Placing Oprah within a religious context is not new; anyone who saw her play spiritual emcee during the five-hour interfaith “Prayer for America” in 2001 could situate Winfrey among the spiritual elite. But how is Winfrey’s spiritual “power” developed? Where does it come from? How is it disseminated? Lofton’s book examines these questions through cultural, religious, and historical lenses. According to Lofton, Winfrey is able to package spirituality as more than just an ethereal experience. Oprah’s spirituality and power derives from the ability to commodify the idea of a “better you.” Each Winfrey product endorsement and guest is infused with this idea. The idea is promoted seamlessly across platforms, from her television show, to her radio show, to her magazine, and through her book club. Each of these outlets offers participants opportunities to catch glimpses of themselves in a better life, through a better light: the light cast by Oprah and Harpo Productions.
Lofton’s prose is highly readable, making it accessible to not only those steeped in religious and cultural studies, but to a general audience as well. The book breaks down the Oprah phenomenon by first examining the relationships between consumer culture, celebrity culture, the prosperity gospel, and the discourses of spirituality. While laying that groundwork, Lofton dismisses the three typical relationships between religion and popular culture—religion appearing in popular culture, popular culture appearing in religion, and popular culture as religion. She notes that “there have [. . .] always been pigeon sellers in every temple” (9). In this time in the country’s social, religious, and cultural life, Lofton notes, it is increasingly hard to weave out the secular from the religious and vice versa. The rise of Oprah (the brand) and her empire seems to at once mirror and forge this phenomenon.
Indeed, it is this marriage of the commercial and the spiritual that remains the focus of the book, but its purpose is not just to show that commercialism has always been a part of religion, but “to explode the tenuous wire between secular occupation and religious ones in order to highlight the constituent nature of each” (18). It is this commercial consumption, then, that enhances and draws out our deeper religious longings.
After laying this groundwork, Lofton breaks down component parts of the Winfrey machinery. While examining the ritual of “the makeover,” Lofton notes that Winfrey’s television show provides systematic avenues for identity formation. This identity, however, is created and interpreted by Oprah herself. The Oprah Winfrey Book Club is recast by Lofton as an extension of the “post-Reformation Protestant textual tradition” (18), with the text used for immediate and personal change, not contemplation of the texts themselves. The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, the South African school Oprah founded, is seen as a marriage of traditional missions work with the modern process of developing global markets. [End Page 172]
A highlight of the book is the examination of Oprah’s gender and race within the line of American women evangelists. Indeed, by placing her not only within the tradition of African-American preachers, but also the strong line of women evangelists helps the reader view Oprah as more than a media phenomenon, but as the extension of a cultural tradition this generation has not experienced. Indeed, though Oprah may be considered a “contemporary” to someone like a Joyce Meyer, Winfrey’s mastery of different platforms and her ability to distance herself from “religion” while embracing “spirituality” make her more suited—and more powerful—to the culture at large.