In her 2000 HBO stand-up comedy special, “The Beginning,” Ellen DeGeneres describes an imaginary (one presumes) meeting with God at God’s house.
The Creator and the comedienne drink Chablis, eat fondue and have a chat.
“There were pictures of Jesus everywhere,” DeGeneres says of God’s decorating, before revealing that God is, in fact, a gorgeous middle-aged African-American woman.
I always picture Her as Oprah Winfrey in a purple pantsuit.
Which might explain what happened when I heard that in a recent poll, 33 percent of respondents to an online poll at Beliefnet.com, the groovy, ever-expanding Web site that covers all kinds of religions and spiritual paths as they intersect with popular culture, said Winfrey has had “a more profound impact” on their spiritual lives than their clergypersons.
Upon hearing the news, my first thought was, “Yeah, could see that.”
And my second thought was . . . well, it was imagining a beaming Winfrey in the fabulous purple pantsuit handing me a glass of chilled white wine, a perfectly starched linen napkin, and a fondue fork with a pretty beaded tassel on the end, and inviting me to sit down on her white linen sectional to discuss my gratitude journal.
I’m certain this says far more about me and my hyperactive imagination than it does about God. Or Oprah. But still —
This week Winfrey celebrated the 20th anniversary of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” (The first broadcast of the show was in September 1985 and it became nationally syndicated in 1986, so I guess this week was kind of in the middle.)
With more than 10 million viewers in more than 100 countries, there is no denying the awesome power of “the Oprah.” She reaches more people in a TV day than most preachers could ever dream of in a lifetime of sermons and altar calls.
I wonder, has Oprah become America’s pastor?
Oprah the new Billy?
For more than a generation, that unofficial title has been held by the Rev. Billy Graham, who also announced this week, at the age of 87, that his revival this past summer in New York City would be, as many had suspected, his last.
In her new book, The Gospel According to Oprah, author Marcia Z. Nelson of west suburban Aurora makes a persuasive case for how Oprah, 51, may be the new Billy, at least in terms of the nonsectarian spiritual-shepherd-like function she serves in today’s increasingly pluralistic culture. Nelson recalls that it was Winfrey who acted as master of ceremonies at the nation’s public memorial service 12 days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a role that Graham, who is in poor health, likely would have filled in years past.
While she is not ordained, doesn’t preach in the traditional sense, and normally eschews overt Jesus-talk on her television show, Oprah actively spreads the gospel, albeit one that encompasses, but is not confined to, biblical ideals.
Gratitude and forgiveness
Nelson says Winfrey “translates what religions would term transcendent into something that is inspiring but secular.” Oprah’s “gospel” is built upon gratitude and forgiveness, generosity and action, self-examination and empathy, and is presented in a way that is entertaining enough to keep her audience interested in hearing more, Nelson says.
One episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” might focus on the plight of HIV-positive South African children, or women and girls who have been raped as a weapon of war in Congo. The next episode might be about how to choose a bra that fits correctly, or Jennifer Aniston’s love life.
Still, Nelson says, Oprah’s show presents a consistent theology of story and morality that says we are all part of the human family. We are affected by the suffering and joys of others, at home or across an ocean. We are, each of us, flawed and yet equally loved by God.
“She is religion dressed in fashionable street clothes, walking the walk, meeting people where they are on weekdays, not Sundays, and talking to them in their language, which is also hers: the language of experience,” Nelson writes.
While we haven’t quite arrived at “Oprahism,” a religion envisioned in the cartoon series “Futurama” (and pithily referenced in a blurb on the back cover of Nelson’s book by my Florida buddy, Mark Pinsky, the Orlando Sentinel’s religion writer and author of The Gospel According to the Simpsons and The Gospel According to Disney books), there is mounting evidence for a kind of cult of Oprah.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If Winfrey’s efforts produce generous, grateful, forgiving devotees who are passionate about alleviating the suffering of others, what’s to criticize?
The Oprah phenomenon doesn’t ruffle the feathers of the Rev. John Cusick, the straight-talking director of young adult ministries for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago and a preaching priest-in-residence at Old St. Pat’s, which just happens to be the parish nearest Harpo Studios, a k a home of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
‘A moral voice’
“Oprah has the most popular talk show in America — why wouldn’t she be a tremendous influence?” Cusick said when I mentioned the Beliefnet poll. “It makes all kind of sense to me. I’m not thrilled with it, but I think Oprah is quite level-headed. Look at what she did after Hurricane Katrina. In many ways she was more of a moral voice around what was happening in New Orleans than any voice I heard. Any politician. Anyone. I mean, she was outraged at the [government’s] response. She did a whole show about it.
“What she’s doing is helping people to trigger the spiritual self that every one of us has. And then people can move on to say, ‘What am I going to do with this? … I somehow need to feed this spiritual hunger that I’m beginning to experience,” he said. “My job is to try to offer that answer.”
Like any good pastor, Oprah isn’t attempting to draw people to herself.
She’s trying to point her audience in the direction of something — or someone — that can offer abundant life, where Chablis and fondue are just the fringe benefits.
More religion articles by Cathleen Falsani at the Chicago Sun-Times