Published by The College of Liberal and Professional Studies
Oprah, One More Thing Before You Go
Could you please stop talking about God? Please.
I do respect what Oprah has achieved, but I admit that I am not a fan of her show. I have been laid-up with a pinched nerve, hence the delay in posting a column. I took this opportunity to try, again, to watch an entire program. I failed. In spite of my infrequent viewing, I still catch god-speak peppered throughout her shows.
Recently, when she spoke with the author of Women, Food and God, she said, "The issue isn’t really the food. It is about your connection to that which is real which we call God," (May 12, 2010). I’m just not comfortable with Oprah defining God.
Encouraging religious dialogue is the primary purpose of my blog, so it may seem hypocritical of me to wish that Oprah would do less of it. I ask you to think about religious conversation in the context of the recently released Pew study. The survey conducted 3,400 phone interviews asking 32 religious knowledge questions, with the average respondents getting 50 percent correct. Atheists and agnostics got the highest scores and Protestants and Catholics did the worst – worse than the "nothing in particular" category, ("U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey," September 2010, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life). A previous Pew study showed that "Americans are the most religious of the world’s developed nations," yet their knowledge about religion, even their own, is lacking. Pitiful, I would say.
God-speak, in the vacuum of information, is a dangerous thing. What I concluded from reading (and taking) the survey, is that when people talk about religion, they are most often talking about their own religion, and their interpretations may or may not be informed. Kudos to Oprah for being well-read, and I don’t doubt that she has had enlightening experiences which she so annoyingly likes to call those "ah-ha moments." Still, I think it is irresponsible for her to position herself as a religious advisor – even inadvertently. When she speaks, millions listen. And when Oprah says, "What God intended for you goes far beyond anything you can imagine,’’ she is dragging theology into pop psychology and dumbing it down to trite. Religion is not supposed to be easy.
Karen Armstrong’s 2009 bestseller, The Case for God, opens with "We are talking far too much about God these days, and what we say is often so facile." She goes on to say, "There is also a tendency to assume that, even though we now live in a totally transformed world and have a totally transformed worldview, people have always thought about God in exactly the same way as we do today. But despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our religious thinking is sometimes remarkably underdeveloped, even primitive." Primitive and over-simplified, I would say.
I suppose it is possible that Oprah’s world is so insulated by sycophants that she is unaccustomed to being challenged or listening to common sense. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for her agreeing to debate convicted felon and online Christian radical, Bill Keller, (March 17, 2008) on the definition of a Christian. There’s a YouTube clip of Oprah explaining and embarrassing herself. Perhaps she thought she could talk her way around the label of the "The Most Dangerous Woman on the Planet" assigned by the Internet evangelical equivalent of Glenn Beck. Theology is not an area where Oprah needs to comment or debate since she clearly can’t discern between crackpots and seekers.
On a day-to-day basis, there is harm done by simplistic theology. We know bad things happen to good people, and under those circumstances it is common to hear that old chestnut, "When God closes a door He opens a window." I have never found this comforting. Envisioning a puppet-master God makes free will and individual choice irrelevant. That kind of thinking perpetuates a sense of fatalism and hopelessness. Joseph Campbell told us (in the series with Bill Moyers for PBS "The Power of Myth") that we imagine the God we are capable of understanding. Some people need to imagine a small demanding god with an arbitrary temperament. That is their business, until they try and impose this view on the rest of us.
It would be better if Oprah would stop spreading her brand of trite theology and the rest of us understand that it is unwise to look for simple answers to difficult questions. A little struggle goes with searching and sorting through it all is more important than the answers. The journey is more important than the destination, and when it comes to religion and spirituality, the journey is the destination.
As for me, I’m thinking maybe my search would be easier if I would eat some peyote, make my pinched nerve feel better and talk to God all in the same trip. I hope Oprah doesn’t do a show on that.