Kathryn Lofton’s Oprah Trilogy

Kathryn Lofton, one of the cleverest young religion scholars out there nowadays, has a trio of op-eds celebrating (sort of) the last episode of Oprah’s TV show:

What Was Oprah?” – The Washington Post‘s On Faith

How Oprah Became a Messiah” – CNN’s Belief Blog

Oprah Winfrey’s last show: Finale marks end of an era but talk queen’s self-help gospel will live on” – The New York Daily News

Amidst all the usual fame-worshiping fawning that you see this week about Oprah, who else is going to quote ol’ Rosenszweig? Here’s a bit from the On Faith piece:

Many of the ideas Oprah advocated are familiar to historians of religion, economics, and politics. The difference between Oprah and her precursors was her peculiar historical moment, wedged as she was between the Pepsi generation and their millennium progeny. Unlike the messiahs, prophets, and mountebanks that preceded her, Oprah presided over an age in which her viewers could imagine that they occupied a world in which they have endless option and unlimited freedom. She named an ideal life for herself and then exposed herself as imperfect in its pursuit.

“The false messiah is as old as the hope for the true Messiah,” wrote Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig, “He is the changing form of this changeless hope.” The end of Oprah is perhaps the end of Oprah, but it is hardly the end of the hope she represents. The success of OWN will be contingent upon Oprah’s physical disappearance. She must become a brand that does not require her physicality to endorse its utility.

How now will we know our best lives? After Oprah, first-person narratives have become indispensable products.

Why all the Oprahism from Lofton? Well, she has a marvelous new book out from University of California Press called Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon. Be sure to see The Immanent Frame’s quite extensive discussion of it, including her interview with me, where she describes her Oprah-watching process:

Starting in 1998, I began to take notes when I would watch. I have those notebooks, and they’re comic exercises in scientism. I started doing a very ordered appraisal, using different-colored pens for different kinds of claims that were being made. If she said “This I believe,” or “What I know for sure,” those would be in purple. If she complimented someone, I would put that in a different color. If she interpreted a text or something that was said, I would put it in another color. It was a rudimentary study of her language, as well as of the ways that other women she spoke with became converted to her language games. I have five solid years of notes for every episode and a ten-year archive of topics that the show covered, with key transcripts for the episodes that I thought were particularly emblematic. Meanwhile, I was reading along with the book-club, buying her magazine, and consuming her celebrity scat from tabloids.

Having no more episodes to color-code must be a big relief.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.