Is Oprah God? Or At Least A 'Really Hip, Materialistic Mother Teresa'?

Okay, selling Oprah as God-like has been done as a joke before, but Yahoo is highlighting an Ann Oldenburg article in USA Today taking it seriously, headlined "The divine Miss Winfrey?" Oldenburg began:

After two decades of searching for her authentic self -- exploring New Age theories, giving away cars, trotting out fat, recommending good books and tackling countless issues from serious to frivolous – Oprah Winfrey has risen to a new level of guru...Over the past year, Winfrey, 52, has emerged as a spiritual leader for the new millennium, a moral voice of authority for the nation.

"She's a really hip and materialistic Mother Teresa," says Kathryn Lofton, a professor at Reed College in Portland, Ore., who has written two papers analyzing the religious aspects of Winfrey. "Oprah has emerged as a symbolic figurehead of spirituality." (Later, Lofton added, "She's a moral monitor, using herself as the template against which she measures the decency of a nation.")

At the end, Lofton makes one more appearance, along with another pop-culture analyst:

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."

It's most apparent in the setting of her show, Twitchell says. "The guest is sitting beside her, but what she's really doing is exuding this powerful message of 'You are a sinner, yes, you are, but you can also find salvation.' What I find intriguing about it is it's delivered with no religiosity at all, even though it has a powerful Baptist, democratic, enthusiastic tone.

"It has to do with this deep American faith and yearning to be reborn. To start again."

But wait, there’s more silliness:

Claire Zulkey, 26, an Oprah follower who has written about Winfrey in her online blog at zulkey .com, says, "I think that if this were the equivalent of the Middle Ages and we were to fast-forward 1,200 years, scholars would definitely think that this Oprah person was a deity, if not a canonized being."

Marcia Nelson says that it's not going too far to call her a spiritual leader. "I've said to a number of people - she's today's Billy Graham."

Nelson said that concept was most apparent when Winfrey co-hosted the 2001 memorial service held 12 days after the terrorist attacks in New York. She urged the people who filled Shea Stadium that day, and all Americans, to stand strong, rousing the audience by repeating the refrain, "We shall not be moved."

In the middle of the article, Oldenburg wrote in a slightly more traditional religious/ministerial vein:

In a November poll conducted at Beliefnet.com, a site that looks at how religions and spirituality intersect with popular culture, 33% of 6,600 respondents said Winfrey has had "a more profound impact" on their spiritual lives than their clergypersons.

Cathleen Falsani, religion writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, recently suggested, "I wonder, has Oprah become America's pastor?"

"I am not God," Oprah said in a 1989 story by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison that ran in The New York Times Magazine titled The Importance of Being Oprah. But at the time, Winfrey called her talk show her "ministry," Harrison wrote. It remains an interview Winfrey says she hates. In a Los Angeles Times interview in December, the talk-show host said that "at every turn everything I said was challenged and misinterpreted."

There are Oprah critics in the piece, especially Debbie Schlussel, and I have to credit Mark Jurkowitz for joking in the Boston Phoenix, "She puts the cult in pop culture."

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