Friday, October 14, 2011

Oprah Winfrey, Stephen Mansfield, and the Spirits of the Age

Oprah Winfrey richly deserves her reputation as an interviewer. Her natural curiosity and gift of gab combine to elevate even mundane conversations to the realm of intimate revelation. No wonder Oprah’s slightest endorsement can turn innovators into superstars overnight. Unfortunately, as Stephen Mansfield asserts in Where Has Oprah Taken Us?, she has turned this same influence to peddling spiritual silliness that may eventually have dire consequences.

From 1994 until her retirement, TV’s most beloved woman made her show a haven for spiritual seekers and enlightenment merchants of every stripe. Eckhart Tolle and Rhonda Byrne rode Oprah’s grandeur to their own overnight success. Marianne Williamson and Deepak Chopra, already famous, became cultural powerhouses with Oprah’s help. But she has often accepted grandiose claims with an appalling lack of critical thought.

Mansfield combines biography, sociology, and comparative religion to look into how Oprah became dangerously credulous, and what implications her gurus’ theologies may have. Where it would be easy for such a writer to cast aspersions, Mansfield’s approach is strikingly gentle. He shows Oprah great respect, even fondness. He critiques her discoveries, but with an air more of sadness than anger, and certainly not condemnation.

Raised in an environment where being poor and black made life dangerous, Oprah resolved to improve herself. Blessedly, she had the gifts, courage, and timing to accomplish these goals. But along the road, she lost her once-firm religious footing. When she invited her TV audience along on her journey to rediscover belief, they witnessed her investigate new paths with wide-eyed wonder, but without asking important questions.

Mansfield doesn’t limit himself to Oprah; he sees her as an emblem of her generation. America’s post-war kids inherited a morally hollow nation numbed on triumph. When they sought answers to eternal questions, Christianity unfortunately chose expedience and conformity over truth. This left a disenfranchised generation ripe for exploitation by self-made swamis proselytizing egocentric faiths.

Hinduism in particular appealed to a generation, but not real Hinduism, which relies on principles which seem bizarre, even offensive, to Westerners. Instead, hucksters pitched a sanitized Hinduism diluted with self-help bromides. Key spiritual concepts came to mean the exact opposite of their historical precedent. The spongy product let seekers feel spiritual without having to live for anything larger than themselves.

Christianity and other faith heritages failed to provide a relevant counter-narrative. Who, really, can blame Oprah’s generation for seeking its beliefs among charismatic, reverent eminences? And when TV’s ultimate best friend lent her support to spiritual leaders who ratified her own empowerment principles, crowds flocked to the likes of Gary Zukav and Iyanla Vanzant in hopes of sharing her sacred intimacy.

As Mansfield demonstrates, these gurus’ principles lead to chilling conclusions. If my thoughts create reality, as Rhonda Byrne attests, then I cause any disease, violence, or tragedy I suffer. If I am God, as Marianne Williamson suggests, then I save or condemn myself, but how? No answer is forthcoming. And the less said about Deepak Chopra’s “medicine,” much of which involves drinking or washing with our own urine, the better.

By Mansfield’s reckoning, Oprah does not provide a soapbox for such untenable silliness for malign reasons. She just wants answers, like we all do. But instead of seeking some larger point to which we can anchor our lives, such as Christianity or Islam offer, she places her trust in forms of self-actualization. She’s less interested in knowing God or the gods than in knowing and advancing herself.

This produces an informal, ethically squishy faith—and, worse, an egocentric approach to life’s spiritual risks. Christians love God and their neighbors, while Muslims submit to Allah’s will and Buddhists seek to abolish suffering through enlightenment. Oprah’s spirituality merely feeds selfish appetites. No wonder she keeps seeking novelty through new gurus, even after decades of experience.

According to Mansfield, Oprah is a product of a conflicted time in history, and as such we can’t hold her culpable for society’s current spiritual goofiness. However, her almost unprecedented reach and proven economic might give her influence that evangelists and emperors would envy. And she’s used that influence to push some inexcusable spiritual products on a disturbingly credulous audience.

Mansfield doesn’t oppose Oprah. In places, he even admires her intelligence and ingenuity. But he also urges Oprah, and her audience, to approach spiritual claims more critically. Believing in something isn’t enough. In today’s spiritually risky world, we must also believe to something. That puts the onus on Oprah, and on us, to know not just what we believe, but why.

On a related topic: Believing in Everything, Believing in Nothing

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