Ever since she commandeered the airwaves, academics have been weighing in on the cultural phenomenon that is the Big O - and by that, we mean Oprah. The most recent treatise to examine Oprah's larger-than-life impact is from Yale University professor Kathryn Lofton, who penned the book Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon. In it, she makes the case that Oprah is nothing less than the media messiah for a secular age. Reached in Connecticut, Ms. Lofton extrapolates on Saint Oprah.
What led you to see Oprah as a spiritual messiah for the masses?
Undergraduate irony. As a student at the University of Chicago, my dorm had a communal room with a television, and Oprah was repeated late at night on the local ABC affiliate. I would be sitting with a group of friends who were all reading the same high-brow social and political theory and applying it colloquially to The Real World: Boston. Few were as captivated as I was by Oprah; I think it was too sentimental and mom-jean for them. But to me, it was an intellectual playground, hitting on everything I was reading while also queering, contesting and troubling those readings. Then, in graduate school, it became a dorky parlour trick for me to connect Oprah with almost any aspect of U.S. religious history, from Puritans to California yogis. As I began to teach courses in religious studies, I found the show was a great way to test theories of myth, ideology and ritual for students new to religious studies abstractions.
You say she offers her audience nothing less than a spiritual revolution? How so?
In the mid-1990s, when Oprah went to Amarillo to testify in her defense against the Texas cattlemen who sued her for defaming the beef industry, she was asked a series of questions accusing her of sensationalizing the news. Oprah's show is spiritual in three ways. First, there are regular conversations about spiritual writings and spiritual subjects on the show. Second, the show itself is organized around makeovers and missions and testimonials that are rituals familiar to religious history. And third, Oprah offers herself as a model to help her viewers transform themselves and their world.
How does Oprah reflect historical patterns of American religions? And which specific religions?
Oprah offers an intersection of nearly every trend and movement in American religions - I am arguing that she represents the culmination of modern religious life. So, her show includes evangelical ritual formats and Buddhist meditation practices, African-American preaching styles and Mormon organizational strategies.
Click here or to the left for an interactive photo gallery of people who've received a fame boost from Oprah.