Friday, September 30, 2011

Where Has Oprah Taken Us?

Stephen Mansfield’s previous books include The Faith of George W. Bush and The Faith of Barack Obama, but this book is not called The Faith of Oprah Winfrey. Because from his point of view, she’s got the wrong faith.

Therefore it’s called Where Has Oprah Taken Us?: The Religious Influence of the World's Most Famous Woman. Partly an examination of Winfrey’s life from an evangelical Christian perspective, and partly a commentary on the effects of religions in America, it made me curious. I haven’t watched a single episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, and I didn’t know much about her except that she was in The Color Purple.

One review copy later, courtesy of Thomas Nelson’s Booksneeze Program, and I settled down to find out.

The start of the book is gripping. Winfrey was born in circumstances that were challenging to say the least—her unmarried mother was a maid, and this was rural Mississippi in the 1950s. Her adolescence was marked by a pregnancy at fourteen, the baby dying a month after birth.

Yet she never stopped believing that she had “a higher calling”. And when she was hired by the local CBS affiliate to become the first black female anchor in Nashville history, she capitalized on her talents—intelligence, an ability to connect with people and an innate strength.

During one early assignment, Oprah introduced herself to a shopkeeper and offered her hand. “We don’t shake hands with niggers down here,” the man angrily retorted. “I’ll bet the niggers are glad,” she fired back, unflinching.

In her twenties, though, the religion she’d been taught in the Baptist church she attended no longer satisfied her. Years later, though, as she struggled to reinvent her show, she embraced spirituality and endorsed the careers of many New Age mystics with the Winfrey rubberstamp.

That’s where the book stopped being interesting. After that point it’s no longer a biography, albeit a biased one—instead, it’s an attempt to counter Winfrey’s beliefs with Mansfield’s beliefs. Italics set his more evangelical commentaries apart from the rest of the book, so readers who don’t already agree with this perspective know what they can avoid.

I read them all, though, and found Mansfield’s views as unrealistic as he clearly finds those of Deepak Chopra. In his world, all humans need gods to tell them what to do. Minus the god, he believes we either worship myths or ourselves—or in Winfrey’s case, combine the two by elevating oneself to mythical status.

And while her dreams (especially with regard to the film Beloved) may sometimes cross the line between ambitious and inflated, I’m not sure that Mansfield’s perspective is any better. He describes humans as “servants” and “subjects” who “do not create themselves or their destinies by thoughts or mantras or anything else” (pg 178). If Winfrey had believed that she could not influence her own future with her hard work and talent, where would she be today?

Then again, Mansfield displays a consistent fear of other people’s independence, especially their mental freedom of thought. One of his chief criticisms about Winfrey is that she picks and chooses what is meaningful to her from the beliefs of various religions. Another is that she leads us into temptation—specifically, that she uses her power and influence to foist New Age mysticism on people.

Jesus said something about eyes and planks which may be relevant here.

So where has Oprah taken us? I finished this book unconvinced that she was contributing to the downward spiral of America, mostly because there was no evidence that her religion—whatever it is—was doing anything to people that Mansfield’s hasn’t done as well. Though the book does include fictionalized accounts of how Oprah viewers “Jenny” and “Tina” became dissatisfied with Christianity or with their lives as a result of absorbing Winfrey’s endorsements of New Age gurus. And after reading those stories, I think Mansfield should try writing non-fiction instead.


Anonymous said...

"Where Has Oprah Takes Us?"

Don't you mean "taken"?

Mind you, I screw up on my blog posts far more often, just pointing out this nitpick for you.

I would suggest a subtitle for the this book: "Or how wrong she is and how right I am."

Cheers! ;)

Charlotte Jane Ivory said...

Thanks for the review. It sounds like a half-interesting, half-irritating sort of book!

Marian Perera said...

ralfast - Good grief, I can't believe I misspelled the title of the post. I usually proofread the posts carefully, but missed that. Thanks for pointing it out.

Marian Perera said...

Charlotte : It made me want to read a less biased biography of Oprah. Like her or hate her, she's led a fascinating life.