The Christian newspaper headline caught me eye: Oprah’s “Gospel.” I’m not one of the millions who daily watch “The Oprah Winfrey Show” but that doesn’t mean I don’t know “O.” I have read books from the Oprah Book Club list, bought O Magazine and seen her television movies.
But I didn’t realize the depth of Oprah’s pocket book and the breadth of her influence. Her Angel Network has raised more than $50 million to fund nonprofit organizations worldwide. In 2005 Oprah became the first black person listed by Business Week as one of America’s top 50 most generous philanthropists, having given an estimated $303 million.
Oprah is credited with changing the way we think about culture and interpersonal communication. The Wall Street Journal coined the word “Oprahfication” to describe “public confession as a form of therapy.” Jet magazine uses “Oprah” as a verb: “I didn’t want to tell her but she Oprah’d it out of me.” Politicians hold “Oprah-style” town meetings to gauge the mood of their constituents.
One of the most controversial aspects of her cultural influence stems from the emphasis Oprah places on religion and spirituality. In 2002 Christianity Today said she “has become one of the most influential spiritual leaders in America.” CT writer LaTonya Taylor describes Oprah as a “postmodern priestess—an icon of church-free spirituality” with a “congregation” of 22 million viewers.
Oprah retains elements of her Baptist upbringing. But the spiritual quest she began in her 20s has resulted in a belief system made up of a smorgasbord of religions and ideas. Taylor writes, “Oprah clearly believes that part of her role as a talk show host is to call her audience to some sort of higher plane. The theological nature of that higher plane and her methods for getting there are what sound alarms for many of her Christian critics.”
Reflecting on Oprah’s amazing influence prompts me to wonder: What would I do if I woke up tomorrow with Oprah’s clout? What if “O” became “C?”
On the one hand, the answer is easy. As a Christian talk show host I would graciously visits with audience members and special guests about parenting, fashion, food, health and self-improvement and would do so from an evangelical Anabaptist perspective. I would nurture authors who write from a Christian worldview, and everyone would read these novels thanks to Connie Book Club. The nonprofit charities of my choice would be anything connected with Mennonites.
On the other hand, thinking about this question is convicting. Because, in fact, every morning I—like you—wake up as a person of influence. It’s just that my sphere of impact is smaller than Oprah’s. The truth of the matter is that the daily and seemingly mundane choices I make communicate Connie’s “gospel.”
We know something about Oprah’s “gospel” by the authors she recommends, the experts she invites on her television and radio shows and what she says about spiritual things. In fact, Oprah’s search for spiritual truth tells us something about her faith—maybe that she still hasn’t found what she’s looking for.
So what do my choices in these areas proclaim? My reading selections don’t make an author famous, but as a regular visitor at our public library I make lots of picks. If you printed out a list of all the books I’ve read this past year what would that list tell you about me?
I frequently consult experts and recommend them to others. As a parent of three teenagers, I’m always on the lookout for good parenting advice. I peruse magazines for home decorating ideas and new recipes. I buy a magazine if the cover suggests an article can help me lose weight.
But determining how these experts can reflect my faith isn’t easy. In some situations, the expert’s faith is foundational to the advice they offer and the faith connection is obvious. But sometimes obviously Christian experts don’t give very sound advice while “worldly” experts offer counsel that is essentially based in a Christian worldview.
Now when it comes to talking about spiritual things, I have no doubt that my conversation is more orthodox than Oprah’s. But even her critics commend Oprah for her genuine compassion. Do people say that about me? Do my actions reinforce my words?
Our secular American neighbors are spiritually hungry and long to see their lives change. I know that a personal relationship with Jesus Christ will give people what they long for. But how do I convey this conviction? Do I have the attitude of a life-long learner or do I come across as a spiritual know-it-all? Evangelical believers can learn from Oprah—from her willingness to be open about spirituality and her commitment to call for change.
You and I are not Oprah, but we are people of influence. Every day we come into contact with people who need to experience the transforming power, grace and love of Jesus Christ. We will influence them. The question is how.—CF
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