Did you hear that Oprah Winfrey is the reincarnation of God? Well, at least according to USA Today. Reporter Ann Oldenburg did just about everything but say Oprah was the sister of Jesus Christ in a 2,000-plus-word profile in Thursday's edition. Oldenburg lines up a bunch of big names to say how awesomely insightful Oprah is on people's spiritual lives, quotes people predicting that Oprah will be there to greet them in heaven and even includes a Beliefnet poll finding that 33 percent of respondents think Oprah has more impact on their spiritual lives than their pastor. Not missing a beat, the Oldenburg quotes fan Claire Zulkey saying that if Oprah existed 1,200 years ago, we'd look back at her as a deity.
This idea of the "Church of Oprah" is not new. Mollie wrote about it back in January as the James Frey scandal was busting open. God can do no wrong, and apparently neither can Oprah, as we saw her receiving praise for what easily could be argued was a tremendous blunder on her part in promoting Frey's book.
Oprah has been denying her status as a deity since 1989, but at the same time, she was describing her show as her "ministry," according to the article. Apparently it wasn't Oprah's best interview, and she refused to do interviews for the USA Today piece:
Love her or loathe her, Winfrey has become proof that you can't be too rich, too thin or too committed to rising to your place in the world. With 49 million viewers each week in the USA and more in the 122 other countries to which the show is distributed, Winfrey reaches more people in a TV day than most preachers can hope to reach in a lifetime of sermons.
"One of the things that's key," says Marcia Nelson, author of The Gospel According to Oprah, "is she walks her talk. That's really, really important in today's culture. People who don't walk their talk fall from a great pedestal -- scandals in the Catholic Church, televangelism scandals. If you're not doing what you say you do, woe be unto you."
In Ellen DeGeneres' stand-up comedy act several years ago, she included a joke about getting to heaven and finding that God is a black woman named Oprah.
I don't give a hoot about what Oprah does. But some people do and while many like her, others despise her for her influence and power. Oldenburg introduces Oprah's critics and quickly dismisses them, turning the article into a puff piece that furthers Oprah's deity-like image:
[Reed College professor Kathryn] Lofton points out that any discussion of Winfrey should not be one that criticizes her or how she came to be a spiritual icon for the history books but one that examines how it came to be that way. "Why do we all need her so much? What is wrong with us that we so need this little woman in Chicago?"
Jim Twitchell, a professor at the University of Florida who has written several books about branding and describes himself as a cultural anthropologist, says Oprah reverence makes sense.
"Religion essentially is based on high anxiety of what's going to happen to you." Winfrey pushes the idea "that you have a life out there, and it's better than the one you have now and go get it."
For several years, tmatt has been using the term "OprahAmerica." That would be the 60 to 70 percent of Americans who you could place "in the mushy middle" of any given social issue. Considering that the vast majority of the Americans who watch her show probably fall into that category, it is not surprising that they view her as a godlike figure in their lives. Who else would they turn to?
I found it interesting that while the article is set upon placing Oprah in the pulpit of American homes, Oldenburg had the space for only one pastor, who merely explains how he came to understand the concept of the Church of Oprah. There's nothing about how it feels to be replaced by a talk-show host.
This all relates back to Mollie's post on NBA star LeBron James (she provided the title for this post, by the way). LeBron has a similar image, just a different audience.
In writing about King James' deity (more on the religious implication of the title "King" later), Mollie found this Washington Post article by Mike Wise to be a great example of how a reporter went into a church to understand the intersection of sports and religion. Too bad Oldenburg couldn't do the same in helping us understand the collision of afternoon television entertainment and religion. It might have helped balance the article a bit.