Kathryn Lofton begins her chronicle with a question: “What is Oprah? A noun. A name. A misspelling.” Like much of the book, it is rhetorical, confronting us with the grammar and syntax of a television icon. As some have suggested, it is best read aloud, preferably at a fast clip.
After hours of watching and reading, Lofton knows the answer. Oprah is a walking vowel, one that promises to encircle America with a message of hope, consumerism, and personal transformation.
Daring to tell a big story, Lofton uses Oprah to draw a map of popular religion in America. Criticizing the “pointillist profusions” that divide “our sects by geography,” she compares North American religion scholars to Borges’ cartographers “who, in their effort to map accurately the crevice of every mountain, created a map the size of the territory.”
Lofton’s Americanists sound a lot like the scholars in Ozarks Studies, a tiny subfield focused on a region straddling the South and the Midwest. Instead of mapping the American empire, we focus on 93 counties in Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. In an effort to chart the cultural geography and social history of every hill and valley, we sometimes forget that “map is not territory.” Asking “Is the Ozarks is, or are the Ozarks are?” we share her love of word play.
O is for Oprah. O is for Ozarks. Can the second embrace the first? Though Lofton stays away from the issue of audience reactions, it is an intriguing question.
Dubbed an “Evangelical Epicenter” by the Patchwork Nation project, my Ozarks county is a long way from Oprah’s Chicago studio. Seventy percent Republican, it is more likely to identify with Sarah Palin. During Palin’s 2009 book tour, the local Borders turned her S into a dollar sign, registering some of the best advance sales in the chain. As fate would have it, Palin was fresh from an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Comparing her Ozarks audience with the citizens of Wasilla, Alaska, she announced, “They are me.” One year earlier, a columnist for the Ozarks Christian News proclaimed, “I am Sarah Palin.”
And yet there is much in Winfrey’s background that resonates with Ozarkers. For starters, she grew up Baptist. In an area with nearly 150 Baptist congregations, that counts for something. Part of Oprah’s “Christian preamble,” this “previously Protestant” identity seeps into the content of her media persona. According to Lofton, “Despite the sense of some that she may indeed be the Antichrist, the work of Oprah and the work of an evangelical in the last decades of the twentieth century are not so dissimilar.”
Many Ozarkers are not so sure. Criticizing Winfrey’s association with the New Age movement, an article in the Ozarks Christian News concludes with a quote from Chuck Norris: “Every time I see her on TV, I think of how the devil disguises himself as an angel of light.”
Norris may be on to something. In “The Social History of Satan,” religion scholar Elaine Pagels traces the origins of Christian demonology to conflicts within first and second century Judaism. Breaking away from the wider Jewish community, some early Christians used Satan to mark the boundary between us and them. According to Pagels, the devil symbolized the “intimate enemy.”
By simultaneously drawing on and departing from American evangelicalism, Oprah has become the intimate enemy, entering the home through the electronic hearth. According to Lofton, “Oprah is all of it and none of it: celebrity and everywoman, corporate chairwoman and smart shopper, black woman and white woman, straight and queer, religious and spiritual, megachurch and shopping mall, seminarian and psychologist.”
To be sure, Ozarkers identify with many of these Oprahs. In an ethnographic study of a local megachurch, Missouri State graduate student Joseph Dutko uncovered a recurring catch phrase: “the best is yet to come.” Echoing Winfrey’s “Live Your Best Life,” this Pentecostal congregation is not far from the kingdom of Oprah. Likewise, Gannett-owned Ozarks Mom Like Me includes a “my favorite stuff” page modeled after The Oprah Magazine’s list of “things we think are just great.”
Lofton notes the genealogy of Winfrey’s spirituality in the nineteenth-century metaphysical movement. This tradition is alive and well in the “holy hills of the Ozarks.” In his chronicle of religion and tourism, Aaron Ketchell documents the presence of nature spirituality in early twentieth-century Branson. While the proprietors of Marvel Cave (now the site of a theme park) articulated a mystical view of the physical world, Kewpie doll creator Rose O’Neill told tales of fairies and fauns. More recently, groups like Unity and the School of Metaphysics have flourished in the area. According to the Springfield News-Leader, Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret flew off the shelves of the local Barnes & Noble, thanks in no small part to Oprah’s endorsement. In 2007, Christ Church Unity screened the film version of the book.
Will Oprah’s O come to encircle the Evangelical Ozarks? It is hard to say.
Trafficking in stereotypes, a local blogger detects a “fear of Oprah” among white, middle-aged “talk radio guys,” noting that “some have even said she has scary beliefs.” In an effort to taunt such Oprahphobic men, she has composed a song: “Oprah is gonna get you, get you, Oprah is gonna get you, you’ll wet yourself in a fright.”
Not surprisingly, serious reservations accompanied Oprah’s involvement in presidential politics. Despite the existence of the Missouri-based “Rednecks for Obama” (a duo that actively subverted a stereotype), McCain/Palin had no trouble winning the region. Oprah’s chosen one was not the choice of the Ozarks.
On the other hand, Oprah has been embraced in some unlikely quarters. First, the Ozarks’ number one tourist attraction has trumpeted an endorsement from Oprah.com: “Smack dab in the middle of the country, this 1880s theme park offers world-class festivals, live shows and thrilling rides for all ages.” It also features Southern Gospel music and the Veggie Tales.
Second, Oprah’s vision of consumerist multiculturalism may have found a home in Northwest Arkansas, where Wal-Mart has embraced the rhetoric of diversity. As Marjorie Rosen argues in Boom Town, a once “tiny Bible Belt community” is changing “into a diverse society like that which we find in our big cities.”
Last but not least, Oprah has become “the other woman” for at least one Ozarks male: Larry Van Ness, of Springfield, Missouri. According to Oprah’s web site, “Every afternoon, Larry settles into a barber chair in his garage and watches the show.” In 2010, Oprah invited him to the premier of her final season, using NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson to deliver the message.
Though Lofton did not focus on the reception of Oprah’s gospel, it is a fruitful area for future research. Big enough to encompass the Charlotte Motor Speedway and the MO-Kan Dragway, the O has a future in Red State America. As Lofton is eager to point out, there is a wideness in Oprah’s mercy.