The Gospel According to Oprah; The Religious Fervor of Self-Empowerment

No cars, no guests -- just God talk and aspirational proclamations on last show.

Oprah Winfrey walked away from her show after 25 years on Wednesday, the culmination of her “farewell season” and the exclamation point on a week of hype and deification rarely seen on television, particularly for someone who really isn’t going away at all. Her final hour was a fine-tuned example of the self-help mantra that has guided her to astonishing success and made her more famous and more powerful than all the televangelists combined. The finale was the Sermon in the Studio, the reaffirmation of the tenets that kept her flock coming back, day after day, to hear the Word of Oprah.

The hour perfectly embodied how complex it is to analyze or critique the woman behind the message. On the one hand, it’s hard to argue how deeply Oprah has touched her massive audience and how much good the self-help emphasis has done for so many people, celebrities included. On the other hand, for those outside the sphere of influence that Oprah holds over her worshippers (they are too numerous to be a cult), it’s impossible to miss some of the God-complex patina that she wears so proudly.

How do you, then, separate the message from the messenger and call bullshit on the self-empowerment mantra that has been the backbone of the show and the person? Well, you don’t, exactly. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with empowering people to feel better about themselves or others. Oprah has used the power of television to preach the gospel of self-esteem and betterment and television has been used for far worse things in the last 25 years.

It could have all gone the other way, you know. Oprah tip-toed down the path of bottom-dwelling exploitation in her early years, then quickly realized that it was fundamentally repulsive. Credit her for spurring the wave of self-affirmation and aspirational television that followed. Had she not won, then maybe Maury Povich would have.

And for God’s sake – and yes, there will be lots of God talk to follow – she almost single-handedly helped this country embrace serious literature. For that alone, she should get a pass on snarky cynicism.

And yet there’s something inherently mesmerizing – and disconcerting – watching someone embrace the role of vessel. Joking about Oprah as the messiah, a god-like power, has been both too easy and too correct. For those in the world who don’t like to be in a flock, can help themselves get through life or otherwise live their lives privately, content to both endure and succeed without talking it to death in public, Oprah and her show have always been a turn-off, a carnival of self-help navel-gazing and smugness.

It’s pointless, however, to turn a spotlight of criticism on that kind of act. It’s one reason certain people (ahem) have mostly avoided Oprah-bashing. What’s the point? The woman is the world’s leading practitioner of make-overs, both inside and out. She is an icon of good. In a world of Jerry Springer and even Montel Williams, why denigrate someone so positive?

So restraint and judgment have been wonderful guiding forces through the years. But this “farewell season” and, in particular, coming to understand just how much transformative Kool-Aid this woman has immersed herself in (hint: size of an ocean), opens up at least one opportunity that must be taken.

Because Oprah is not only a guru, it certainly seems from an outsider’s perspective that she believes a little too strongly in this whole vessel of change conceit. It’s one thing to have the power to transform people, it’s another to believe that God put you in this world for that purpose. No, check that -- it’s another to bask in the bright shining light of that purpose, surrounded by the riches it brings. Isn’t there a danger that you will start to believe the hype? And if that sounds too cynical, how about this: Is there a point where the medium, the vessel, appears to be more sanctimoniously important than the message?

It’s just a thought. And one that certainly wasn’t doused by Oprah’s final hour of her show. These are the words of the messiah herself. Let he or she without ego cast the first snark-soaked stone:

“Something in me connected with each of you in a way that allowed me to see myself in you and you in me.”

What?

But she was barely warmed up, saying of this last episode: “It is my love letter to you.” Oprah never missed a chance to preach in 25 years. “This is what I was called to do,” she said.

She then proceeded to talk of the gospel.

“That is what I want for all of you and hope you will take from this show: to live from the heart of yourself. You have to make a living; I understand that. But you also have to know what sparks the light in you so that you in your own way can illuminate the world.”

It’s not a complex message. Be good to people, essentially. Spread that good. Oprah was able to do it on her talk show and make millions from it, but everyone has a mission, she said.

“Everybody is called.” So answer and carry it forward. “Start embracing the life that is calling you and use your life to serve the world.” The audience looked at her like they’d rather have a car, or some present tucked under their seat. But they understood. It’s not always about shopping. It’s mostly about helping. Oprah reflected on how it was so for her: “Each show teaching me, growing me forward, helping me understand the common connection in our human experience.”

No, there weren’t any bongs visible on the set. It was all coming out of her naturally, and nonstop.

On and on she went, mystically. Spreading the word. “What is your life, what is all life, what is every flower, every rock, every tree, every human being? Energy. And you are responsible for the energy that you create for yourself and you are responsible for the energy that you bring to others.”

Freeze-frame the DVR yourself: No bongs in sight.

Oprah didn’t need to call out for a witness. She had a rapt studio audience and, truth be told, most of the world. Besides, it’s not like Oprah herself needs validation about the message. She’s a true believer. “All life is energy and we are transmitting it every moment,” she said. “We are all little beaming signals like radio frequencies and the world is responding in kind.”

Um, yeah. What she said. Wait, what’s the frequency, Oprah?

Well, all you had to do was listen. In fact, this last guest-less hour, the final hour, was about listening to Oprah stand and preach about what she and her followers have learned over the 25 years. It wasn’t exactly interactive.

“So that’s what we learned on this show,” she summed up at one point. “That you are responsible for your life.” How did she come up with this gem? By mining dysfunction and thus reiterating a message through the show to viewers suffering similar shortcomings: “You are not alone.”

“Little by little, we started to release the shame,” she said.

Knowing heads nodded in the audience. Tears fell.

“This show has taught me, there is a common thread that runs through all of our pain and all of our suffering and that is unworthiness. Not feeling worthy enough to own the life you were created for.”

And what it taught others, she repeated, was important: “You alone are enough.” Roughly translated that’s part of her be the best person you can be mantra, which she’s using over at OWN, her cable channel, where you can find her in the future.

Oprah said that in her 25 years on the show, she had talked to 30,000 guests and they all wanted the same thing: validation. “They share that common desire. Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything to you?”

So Oprah, who talked about her own validation, of overcoming the longest of odds and the toughest of times to be right there, right then, on a stage sending out the word, told people to validate others, to share the love. It was part old world gospel and new age empowerment. And the people, they were eating it up.

The success of her show through these 25 years was directly related to two disparate elements: “My team and Jesus.”

“Because nothing but the hand of God has made this possible for me,” Oprah said. “For all of you who get riled up when I mention God and you want to know which God am I talking about, I’m talking about the same one you’re talking about. I’m talking about the Alpha and Omega, the omniscient, the omnipresent, the ultimate consciousness, the source, the force, the all of everything there is, the one, the only G-O-D. That’s the one I’m talking about.”

Oprah said that in her life, she felt the presence of God, the flow of the positive particles and the grace of the good. And others could, too, if they chose.

“Be still and know it,” she said. “You can acknowledge it or not, you can worship it or not. You can praise it, you can ignore it or you can know it. It’s always there, speaking to you, waiting for you to listen. ... I wait and I listen for the guidance that is greater than my meager mind. The only time I’ve made mistakes is when I didn’t listen. So what I know is, God is love. And God is life. And your life is always speaking to you.”

Oprah listened, and thus her show was born and thrived. And now it’s going over to OWN. She even said that you could reach her directly (and that any response would, indeed, actually be her) by email:  Oprah@Oprah.com

When Oprah tried to sum up the journey she’s taken these 25 years -- and will continue to take going forward at OWN -- she said the journey was purpose-driven.

“I understand the manifestation of grace and God, so I know that there are no coincidences,” she said. “There are none, only divine order here.”

And then she cried – which she had managed to avoid for most of the hour. She talked about her gratitude, about the “ugly cries” and the “gratitude journals” she shared with her devoted audience. She said the past 25 years were “all sweet, no bitter.” And she refused to claim this was the end.

“I won’t say goodbye. I’ll just say, until we meet again. To God be the glory.”

Then she did a victory lap, arms extended to the flock. And she walked out of the studio, kissing beau Stedman on the way, hugging her staff and finally picking up her dog. “We did it, Sadie.”

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine

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