The Augustinian View of Oprah?

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

On the last episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, the host talked about something she often has: Don’t be a victim and obey the Golden Rule. Marcia Z. Nelson wrote a book, The Gospel According to Oprah, about just that. I talked to her about Oprah and her cultural impact (yes, beyond getting Barack Obama elected!). (Nelson can also be read in our symposium on Oprah today.)

Kathryn Jean Lopez: How is Oprah like St. Augustine?

Marcia Z. Nelson: Confession of one’s own faults is strengthening; it does take courage to admit when you’re wrong, because it’s so humbling. Confession paradoxically make a person less alone because that person is more human, less intimidating. Oprah figured out the paradox of confession right at the beginning of her 25 year run.

Lopez: What is the gospel according to Oprah?

: 1. The Golden Rule; 2. To God be the glory; 3. Listen.

Lopez: How much did The Oprah Winfrey Show have to do with the actual Gospels?

Nelson: The Golden Rule is an ethical guideline. But Oprah does believe in a Higher Power; I think over time she de-emphasized the notion of transcendence and heaven and instead focused on the possible and human potential on earth. But I think she uses the same method as do the writers of the Gospels: telling stories.

Lopez: People talk about the Oprahfication of culture? What does that mean? is it good?

Nelson: That describes a talking and listening back-and-forth; pejoratively it means people spill their guts inappropriately. It’s definitely possible to talk too much; I don’t know if one can over-listen. Like everything else, Oprahfication is good in moderation.

Lopez: If she is a confessor, that does help people realize there is redemption; that’s good. But has confession itself become an end?

Nelson: Confession when properly done involves doing sorry, not just saying sorry.

Lopez: If culture makes progress, what would the next Oprah-like kingmaker look like?#more#

Nelson: Somebody who helps us hear our better angels instead of our fears and resentments. Either another entertainer or a woman president.

Lopez: What do people tell you most consistently about Oprah? About your book?

Nelson: Oprah is inspirational, she listens, she’s positive, she makes me think I can make a difference. About my book: The argument makes sense when you stop and think about what Oprah is really doing.

Lopez: What first got you interested in Oprah?

Nelson: I tend to think of religion as something people do rather than something people believe. Oprah is pretty simple about a belief system (believe in your potential and in some Higher Power that put this universe together); for her, the rest is your actions and your choices.

Lopez: Do you have favorite moments?

Nelson: I have always liked stories about forgiveness and the life stories of people for whom education made a difference. I also shop for jeans differently.

Lopez: Is there anything else in our culture like her?

Nelson: Nope. There could be — people who overcome odds; work very, very hard; and have a balance of conviction and the ability to listen.

Lopez: If you were writing a history textbook, what would the line or two about Oprah be?

Nelson: “Television personality Oprah Winfrey rose from humble beginnings to exert tremendous influence on late 20th and early 21st century American culture. Her affable image, her shrewd business instincts, and a pulpit-like multimedia platform combined to make her a billionaire philanthropist whose contributions benefited Africans, African-Americans, and women worldwide.”

Lopez: What was your final-episode takeaway?

Nelson: Say thanks; that’s what the show was all about. To God be the glory; one can forget that at times, but say that before the lights go out on the show of your life. 

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