Kathryn Lofton reads Oprah as a key example of the American religious project in the early twenty-first century. Much contemporary religion is not about religious institutions and communities but a diffuse spirituality that enables one to create an integrated religious self out of disparate practices and beliefs. This spiritual life strives for self-acceptance and self-care as well as openness to the new insights and wisdom that can clarify and confirm one’s emerging identity.
Lofton is cagey about what to make of this religious project, which might be to say that she maintains a critical distance. Hers is part of a larger body of work that responds to the secularization theory by demonstrating that religion has not died but been displaced into a complex range of capitalist cultural practices. Lofton is fascinated by Oprah and her followers, and she describes their spiritual project in great detail. At the same time, she sees what is shallow about them and their quest. The unspoken questions seem to be, Is this “really” religion? And, if so, is it a religion that merely blesses the culture of consumption and celebrity? Can it deliver the deep meaning and confirmation of self-worth that contemporary seekers seek? Lofton makes no explicit response.
It is worth briefly rehearsing Lofton’s argument. Winfrey reveals much about the current nature of the religious. Oprah, a black woman, has become immensely successful by making herself acceptable to white people. She claims the authority of her racial identity while proclaiming a post-racial culture. She speaks of growing up in the Black church, but as an adult she leaves Jeremiah Wright’s Afrocentric congregation as part of a spiritual quest that incorporates New Age eclecticism, bodily improvement, and self-care. She consumes and markets luxury goods as expressions of identity and self-worth. She is compassionate and generous without challenging political, economic, and social structures. Hers is a “gospel of change,” but the change is entirely personal. Oprah never speaks the collective “we”; she is eternally focused on “I.” I believe. I consume. Yet Oprah is more than a highly visible individual.
The complex phenomenon of O—Ms. Winfrey, her corporations, TV show and network, magazine, book groups, and charity—is a model and source of this eclectic spirituality. The O universe of products and experiences gathers a particular audience: female, middle class, inter-racial. Oprah confirms their bourgeois feminism, articulating a sisterly sense that their late-modern lives are over-busy, stressed by the demands of family and career, and filled with a sense of inadequacy. Oprah models two conjoined pathways to arrive at one’s integrated religious self: one is through the gathering of spiritual insights from diverse and potentially contradictory sources; the other is the consumption of aesthetically satisfying goods as a source of meaning and confirmation of self-worth. Oprah, as woman, media presence, and corporation, rolls these things up into herself.
Experts and celebrities give voice to therapies and spiritualities that can be integrated into the emerging Oprah vision. Oprah’s “gift is not her interviewing strategy but her confessional promiscuity.” While claiming only to tell you what she herself believes, Oprah “converts you to an idea, to the idea of her biographical revelations as a model for the world. She is the divine pervasion.” This is a largely passive religious practice. One watches the consumption and eclectic conversation of Oprah and her guests. The viewer participates by buying into Oprah’s interpretations and by buying the goods that Oprah offers and affirms. Paradoxically, the sure pathway to valuing oneself and finding one’s own truth is to follow in the way of Oprah, believing what she believes and possessing the cashmere sweater sets, elegant journals, and teak serving trays that she recommends. It is, in Lofton’s words, “the hegemony of her sway” that is the core of Oprah’s spiritual power.
Curiously, Lofton tells us little about the consumers of the products and ideas that are swayed by the O. The cost of this disinterest is that it is easy to dismiss Oprah’s audience, their dissatisfactions and desires. From her description of the TV show and magazine, it is easy to see them only as white, bourgeois, vapid, and self-absorbed.
In an earlier University of California Press book (Authentic Fakes, 2005), David Chidester argued that even the practice of charlatans serves a religious function, that it responds to real religious hungers. What are the hungers of Oprah’s audience? If we knew more about them, might we be less dismissive of their dissatisfaction with their lives? Might we understand more fully why they feel so divided, and thus why they are so hungry for an integrated spiritual self? What is there about contemporary mass-mediated culture that is so alienating, so fixed even as it changes, that they can imagine only individual projects of conversion and improvement? This individualized spiritual construction is widespread in American culture. We find it not only among the followers of Oprah and the believers in the Super Bowl, but also among those who continue to attend churches, synagogues, and mosques. What are they seeking? Will it sustain them? And are their practices an index of some emerging patterns of religion that we cannot yet clearly identify?
How will we study these things? Lofton accomplishes a great deal. The study of contemporary American religion is challenged in several ways by her work. In the late twentieth century, scholars of religion turned from the synthesis of the religious practiced by Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell to follow J. Z. Smith in focusing on what is distinctive about specific religions and religious traditions. We argue that religious synthesis distorts actual practices and carries a colonial agenda, interpreting the other’s faith in light of that of the dominant group. As Lofton’s study of O illustrates, in the same period, American popular religion has moved in the other direction. Individual practitioners function as bricoleurs. They fashion systems of personal spiritual meaning from the détritus of various traditions, products, and narratives. Tradition and internal consistency matter little in the process of Oprahfication, “a dialogical idiom in which the interviewer restates what the subject has said in order to affirm its truth through a universal that she, Oprah, represents.”
In the same period, we in the academy have resisted the popular discourse of “spirit.” We are frustrated by the term’s fluidity, by the range of meanings it seems to carry, and by the inability of those who use the term to say more precisely what they mean. For all the complexity of what religion might mean, we are more comfortable in talking about it than about spirituality. But O and countless others regard religion as that which they reject. Rather, they assert, it is spirit that emerges from their assemblages.
If scholars of religion are to understand these constructed spiritualities, which so resist our lenses and categories, we will have to think in new ways. Lofton points us toward the location of much of this work, for which I am deeply grateful. As we go forward, it will take more attention to the audience and to their critique of both religion and culture if we are to comprehend what they are constructing.