Confession: I watch Oprah. For the last 15 years, I’ve tuned into more Oprah episodes than church services. Last winter, when Oprah Winfrey announced that she and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, the author of The Power of Now and A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, were hosting a 10-week online faith study, I immediately reserved a “seat.” So did more than 700,000 (and eventually five million) other people.
The first class, I thought, was pretty cool. Not the class itself, but the fact of it. Who would have imagined so many people tuning into a faith study? Who could have imagined such technology?
By the third broadcast, I had stopped marvelling. The technology was new, but the content and delivery weren’t. Tolle repackages a very basic teaching: spiritual consciousness can bring about a “new earth.” In order to become more spiritually conscious, humans must lose their egos and focus on being instead of doing.
Tolle’s teachings reinforce a number of dualisms: spirit/matter, thinking/feeling, inner/outer purpose. He considers religion inferior to spirituality, though he admits he borrows heavily from a number of religions, particularly Buddhism, to inform his own world view.
Now it’s the fifth broadcast and I’m sorting files. Not that I mind. It’s certainly a more productive use of my time than passing mints down a pew. But if I do have an “Aha!” moment, as Winfrey likes to call them, who am I going to share it with? Strangers on a message board?
“You’re right. It’s not new, but it’s accessible. It offers a common spiritual language that isn’t weighted with heavy theological debate,” commented a friend who has enjoyed a spiritual reconnection with her more theologically conservative daughter-in-law as a result of the study. I am tempted to reply, “But there’s no theological debate, period.”
For me, struggle is a necessary component of faith study. I enjoy dialogue with leaders who don’t pretend to have it all worked out, who don’t just answer my questions but pose a few of their own. I think that some ideas are better than others, so I like critique. And when Tolle extols the virtues of being “fully present” while the faith study is interrupted by yet another advertisement for Post-it notes and Chevrolet, I crave critical analysis of the ideas.
Part of the value of religion is that it brings an awareness of marginalization and suffering to its critique of cultural trends. To be sure, Winfrey does too. One of the greatest philanthropists of our generation, Winfrey has awakened the world to a number of social justice issues.
But she brands culture more than she comments on it. How liberating can the Oprah magazine be, I wonder, when a story titled “Spirituality: New Ideas on Faith” is billed alongside “How to Get Gorgeous Legs”?
Winfrey’s latest TV spinoff, The Big Give, is a reality show where 10 people are given a large sum of money and compete to find “the most powerful, sensational, emotional and dramatic ways to give to others.” Contestants are judged and booted off for not giving well. The show has turned philanthropy into competition, with Winfrey crowning the most virtuous participant.
Winfrey’s moniker “the high priestess of television” no longer fits. Her reign has eclipsed television. The world is now her church. She impresses upon it from the multimillion-dollar, 42-acre California estate she calls “The Promised Land.”
Of course, there is much to admire about Winfrey. Raised in poverty, raped at nine, pregnant at 14, she is the embodiment of hope. Her success, she says, isn’t due to ambition, but to a quest for a spirit-filled life.
I can’t help but think that some of Winfrey’s spiritual tangents are like the weight-loss she enjoyed as a result of the liquid diet she endorsed on her 1988 set while wearing those now-famous, skinny Calvin Kleins — short-lived.
Still, the church ought to note where Winfrey’s spiritual whims blow.
Last week, a member of Presbytery told me with a note of apology in her voice that she might not attend the Presbytery-wide discussion group I’ve called based on the Winfrey/Tolle study. “It’s not where I’m at in my spiritual life and I don’t find it very meaningful,” she said.
“That’s okay,” I responded, smiling. “It really is.”
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