The TV evangelists — remember them?
They helped define public religion in the 1980s. They’re still here, a crowded field of new faces, and mercifully inspiring fewer jokes on Saturday Night Live.
The old guard from the Cold-War Age of Falwell is fading. Pat Robertson’s recent on-air eruption (suggesting a policy of assassination to undo the socialist Venezuelan president) was an era-ending moment; he looked quaintly out-of-touch. Evangelicals quickly disowned his outburst. Robertson later apologized.
In their heyday, televised titans such as Jimmy Swaggart and Oral Roberts seemed to deliver the very thunder of heaven. Now they look as dated as The Gong Show.
The culture has shifted. Back then, the preoccupations were the Russians and the Rapture. Today, pop culture rewards preachers who encourage, who bring tough-minded advice or prosperous good tidings to the dreads of the 21st century. Joyce Meyer, T.D. Jakes and Joel Osteen are multimedia shapers of this climate of hope. Two other hugely influential ministers, Rick Warren and Max Lucado, spread their message through books or conference halls, not TV ministries.
Until now, there’s a name I neglected on the list — maybe be the most influential “TV evangelist” of all.
You might protest: Oprah’s a mega-successful TV host, interviewer and magazine entrepreneur, not a preacher of the gospel. Well, listen to Marcia Nelson, author of the new book The Gospel According to Oprah. Nelson sees a spiritual dimension to the vast work of this remarkable celebrity, perhaps the best-known woman in the world today.
From her global “pulpit” (audiences in 108 countries watch her TV show), Oprah exemplifies solid spiritual values, says Nelson, a religion writer in Chicago. Oprah is a “compelling and successful spiritual teacher in spiritually eclectic and ever-practical America,” she writes.
“She is an encourager. ‘Live Your Best Life’ is Oprah’s motto promoting and summarizing the good life. She offers tools for living your best life: books to read, people to emulate, material things to help.”
As Nelson argues it, Winfrey is a consistent philanthropist who wants to make things better. She is human, admitting her struggles. She wants to relieve suffering by seeking out stories of victims who need healing. She encourages self-examination, teaches gratitude and generosity, explores the power of forgiveness. She empowers women and lifts up African-American achievements. She’s a gifted communicator who creates a massive community through TV, O Magazine, Oprah Book Club and oprah.com. Oprah reminds viewers what’s good, what’s important, what one person can do.
“Oprah has transformed herself and what she is doing in a series of makeovers over time, and yet there is a core of consistency in what she does. She has made herself into an exemplar of values, a shaper of tastes, and an entertainer. All three of those functions work together,” Nelson says.
After 9/11, when the New York memorial service needed a master of ceremonies, planners tapped not Billy Graham, but Oprah Winfrey. It signaled a new cultural reality. Sectarian faith gave way to therapeutic spirituality.
Nelson wrote her admiring account in order to understand the power of Oprah’s message. (Winfrey did not authorize the book.) Does Oprah transcend the fake excitement of TV or symbolize its excesses? Oprah “does good things, mainly,” though occasionally she sends a confusing materialistic message, Nelson notes: “Love yourself — but lose 10 pounds. Give to receive — and don’t forget to buy yourself something. Old is OK but not too old, that is, dowdy or frumpy.”
The “gospel” of Oprah can sound plausible only because pop culture has become such an unchallenged power in our lives. Hollywood and media empires define our entertainments and appoint the celebrities. Paradoxically, Winfrey, who owes her fame to TV, offers solutions to problems that TV itself intensifies and reinforces every day — low self-esteem, loneliness and false intimacy with glamorous stars.
But pop culture is forever changing, fickle, impatient, always motivated by profit margins.
All the more reason to question its anointings. When religion is confused with media success, then TV evangelists become weepy self-parodies, and celebrities are canonized as stage-lit saints. Real religion isn’t the same as a TV show. I imagine Ms. Winfrey, entrepreneur extraordinaire though she is, knows that.