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Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon.

Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon. By Kathryn Lofton. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. xii + 288 pp. $55.00 cloth; $22.95 paper.

Neither biography nor expos6, Lofton's study of Oprah Winfrey analyzes various religious aspects associated with Winfrey herself and the empire of consumer goods and media enterprises linked to the talk-show mogul. Calling Winfrey evokes the Orthodox Christian understanding of sacred images that illumine a larger reality even as they are objects of devotion in themselves. Lotion's primary contention is that the person of Oprah is both that larger idealized reality and a multifaceted product embodying the ideal. Here the ideal is the fulfilled life, one's best self, attained through devotion to the world Oprah symbolizes, using commodities Oprah promotes, and embracing the motivational approaches proffered by various experts interviewed on Oprah's talk show. The faithful are overwhelmingly female, mostly women struggling to triumph over suffering and the despair of leading unfulfilled lives. They find in Oprah both a kindred spirit and a redeemer, one who conquered the devastation of poverty and discrimination experienced as an African American girl in the South and now epitomizes the good life. The Christian New Testament in 1 Corinthians presents Christ as the "new Adam" of a "new creation." Lotion's Oprah Winfrey is a "new Eve" stripped of human frailty who boldly celebrates life in a new Eden.

To dissect the Oprah phenomenon, Lofton draws on many interpretive tools. She is historian and cultural anthropologist, psychologist and popular culture analyst, theologian and therapist. So, too, is the Oprah Winfrey she depicts. Lotion first links Winfrey to the "prosperity gospel" promoted by scores of media personalities, demonstrating that the array of consumer items bearing the "O" imprimatur enable users to create both a material and spiritual reality that reflects wholeness and completion. It matters little that most of the products promoted, either in Winfrey's magazine or on her television program, are so lavish that few of her followers could afford them. For Lofton, the image of the product, like the icon, is what matters, leading countless women to believe that they abide in their own Eden if they have these products around them.

Lofton next ties Winfrey to the tradition of self-help and positive thinking cascading through American religion at least since the later nineteenth century fascination with New Thought. Lofton argues that Winfrey advances rituals akin to conversion because her calls for external change through self-help, positive thinking, and indulging in an occasional extravagance bring internal wellness. After all, Winfrey herself has done that in her own life, becoming embodied proof that personal transformation is possible.

More penetrating is Lofton's discussion of Oprah as "preacher queen" and "confessor" who is both the paradigm of the ideal life and the exception. An African American woman, Winfrey has achieved greater business and Financial success than most white men. Moving from rural poverty to urban opulence, Oprah herself triumphed over suffering. Black and female, she represents the diversity that marks hallmark of American life; yet in capturing the dreams of millions, she represents the unity that bonds together those who have sacrifice themselves for a larger ideal. In this context, Lofton likens Winfrey to other women in American religious history who have both created and managed a persona inspiring others: Aimee Semple McPherson, Kathryn Kuhlman, Evangeline Booth, Mary Baker Eddy, and Amanda Berry Smith. But there is no institutional church here; Winfrey is herself the church, an entity resonating with a generation that is "spiritual, but not religious."

Equally provocative is Lotion's appraisal of the religious nuances of Oprah's book club and Winfrey's claim that reading offers opportunities to discover one's best self. Lotion finds analogies in the sixteenth-century Reformation that relied on the printed word and emphasized placing the biblical text in the hands of ordinary folk. Just as Martin Luther and others believed that power came to men and women who pored over the scriptures themselves, Winfrey sees books transmitting an uplifting grace. Lotion notes that most works endorsed by Oprah center on heroines who find life a perpetual struggle, but who finally triumph. The characters become prisms through which readers examine their own lives to find reservoirs of strength. Lofton also suggests that the Victorian book club, influenced in part by the Chautauqua model and comprised primarily of women, shapes how Winfrey's audience becomes a community uniting readers through a shared journey of therapeutic self-help. Lotion notes that many object to this use of literature, especially fiction, but if Lofton is on target, then Winfrey's deft use of the book resonates with postmodern understanding that makes readers, not the words or the writers, the final arbiter of meaning.

Finally, Lotion highlights Winfrey's extensive philanthropic activity, especially in Africa, observing that her primary targets are women and girls and that Winfrey has a decided preference for endeavors where success can be readily measured and observed. Lotion likens Winfrey's charitable work to traditional missionary endeavors, propelled by women and relishing quantifiable results. In a brief conclusion, Lotion notes that some viewers and readers of Oprah's magazine regard Winfrey as a god-figure, one who is simultaneously gift and giver, the ideal and the way to the ideal.

The question remains, however, whether all these religious nuances make Winfrey a religious figure and the empire she has constructed a religion. Purists would respond in the negative, for much of the apparatus of a religion is lacking. Critics would find more of a personality cult than a religious founder figure in the black woman from Chicago. Yet Lofton deftly and expertly shows how Winfrey opens windows of meaning for millions and draws them into an inchoate community of believers who find in the array of products endorsed by Oprah the keys to the fulfilled life. That indeed is a spiritual enterprise, even if it lacks institutions and traditions that span generations.

Charles H. Lippy

Emeritus, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

doi: 10.1017/S0009640711001740
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Author:Lippy, Charles H.
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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