“I am the messenger to deliver the message of redemption, of hope of forgiveness, of gratitude, of evolving people to the best of themselves.”
– Jesus of Nazareth
Oops - I mean Oprah of Chicago!
Here is Dr. Harriet Baber, Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, USA in today’s Church Times:
Oprah addresses the cultured despisers of American Evangelical piety. But she is also its most effective promoter.
The stock picture of Evangelicalism in popular culture in the US — as a religion of hell-fire sermons, dogmatism, fear, and guilt — is an anachronism, and in large part, a fiction: Evangelicalism is the religion of Oprah.
Without liturgy or creeds, it readily adapts to local sensibilities and fashions — from early American Puritanism to Victorian sentimentality to the therapeutic culture of postmodernism. It is pragmatic rather than speculative, and its aim is salvation, which figures in secularised versions as “personal growth’”.
The vehicle of salvation for both religious and secular Evangelicals is the word, in the sermon and the self-help book, the DVD, the podcast, and every other available medium. Rehearsing the same platitudes and vacuous uplift, it is the religion of endless talk, assuring consumers of the inexorable power of mind over matter.
From Phineas Quimby, the 19th-century inventor of New Thought and his disciple Mary Baker Eddy, who founded the Church of Christian Science, to the Revd Norman Vincent Peale, who popularised the “power of positive thinking” in the 1950s, American popular religion affirms the “Law of Attraction”. This is the doctrine that positive thinking brings about positive material benefits.
It is a degenerate variant of an old theme: the Calvinistic version of salvation by faith (if not in God, in a “higher power”, or in oneself), manifest in this-worldly success….
Oprah has retired from daytime TV at the optimal moment. Americans, still in the grip of the Great Recession, have become sceptical about the power of positive thinking, and are beginning to recognise that charities and random acts of kindness are no substitute for public services and fair economic policies.
The Crystal Cathedral, the US premier Evangelical megachurch in the US, has declared bankruptcy, which gives us some hope that the US’s Established Church, the Evangelical spiritual-therapeuric complex, is collapsing.
Oprah has retired — predicting, I suspect, that the brand of spirituality that her TV ministry promoted is becoming less saleable. We can only hope that she is right.
I am not sanguine about this sanguine conclusion. The optimistic can-do Calvinism to which Professor Baber refers (”degenerate” because it is, in fact, a form of Arminianism) courses, I fear, inexorably and ineradicably through the veins of American Evangelicalism (which Bonhoeffer correctly identified as “Protestantism without Reformation”), and with undiminishing vigour through the bloodstream of its secular and civic religious counterpart (the common watchword is “freedom”). No, while Oprah herself will not come again on the clouds of commodity heaven — even cosmetic surgery cannot save an aging apotheosis in a consumer culture — some other branded avatar and his/her church will fill the spiritual vacuum. No, it will take more than a Great Recession to turn around American Christianity. The Fifth Kingdom of the US, I suspect, must await a Danielic apocalypse.