If there was ever any doubt that Oprah Winfrey wanted America to get religion, I think the Sunday programming on her new television network has quickly dispelled it. Each week, her show ‘Super Soul Sunday’ starts at 8:00 — in the morning. Not only does it air on Sunday morning, but it also stays on for three straight hours. Those of you familiar with church services will know: that’s much longer than a Catholic mass; that’s practically Baptist worship. It requires a serious standing commitment.
The Sunday morning scheduling conflict served to sour me on the show, until I realized it was rebroadcast later in the afternoon. Conceivably, viewers could be coming home from their chosen houses of worship and still catch the latest episode. That meant that ‘Super Soul Sunday’ was not necessarily in direct competition with church. Not necessarily, but very possibly.
For years, I referred to Oprah as the High Priestess of America, a term that communicated the degree of ambivalence I felt about the occasionally cultic devotion to her. I was suspicious of her book club, suspicious of her magazine, suspicious of the extent of her influence. Over time, though, I myself became one of her strangest converts and staunchest admirers.
Today I have real respect for what I now regard as her multimedia ministries. One religion writer characterized Oprah as likely the most influential spiritual leader since Billy Graham. Oprah has often recounted on the air her childhood aspiration to someday become a missionary. So I was not surprised when she signed off from her 25-year talk show by saying, “To God be the glory.”
After Oprah bid us that farewell, I continued to watch her behind-the-scenes series documenting the production of the last shows in that final season. Unfolding there on the small screen was a beguiling dynamic between Oprah and her executive producer, Sheri Salata, who invariably played Zen master to Oprah’s fervent televangelist.
In a particularly revealing exchange, Oprah — fingering wooden rosary beads given to her by nuns who once had been guests on the show — recommends that the two of them each pray over a difficult decision. She tells Sheri that she will be going to her “prayer chair” to contemplate the matter and recommends that Sheri do this too. Then Oprah double-checks that Sheri has a prayer chair of her own. Sheri confirms that yes, she has a prayer chair, before immediately retracting the statement.
“Actually,” Sheri tells Oprah, “that’s not true. I do not have a prayer chair. I have been thinking about getting a prayer chair.”
There is no embarrassment whatsoever in not having a prayer chair. The vast majority of people does not. The vast majority is not even thinking about getting a prayer chair. But in an especially sincere phase, I had taken Oprah’s advice and designated one of the armchairs at home as my prayer chair. The effect was beneficial enough that I could recommend the prayer-chair concept to Sheri, personally.
As pieces of furniture go, the prayer chair seems altogether unremarkable and quotidian. My husband sometimes reads in my prayer chair. My cats sleep on it and shed. Usage limitations exist for me alone, since I myself only sit in it to pray. That chair has since anchored my spiritual life in a way I never anticipated. Lately, when people ask me to pray for them and I do not know which words to use, or exactly what to ask, I simply go to my prayer chair and take a seat.
Herein lies the genius of Oprah’s multimedia ministries: they invite invite people to enter into spiritual contexts without providing them with the specific content for those. The limitations of her multimedia ministries, however, are precisely the same. It’s tough to know what to make of this celebrity/media mogul/philanthropist/true believer, but it’s also entirely obvious that Oprah can preach.
Oprah has done the sort of outreach that many of our churches dream of one day doing themselves. She has sponsored students and built houses; she has encouraged people to volunteer their time and to donate their financial resources; she has worked to uplift entire cities and been vocal in confronting social ills; and finally, she has inspired countless people to connect with what she calls Source, her name “for what some people call God and other people choose to not call God,” to quote the phrasing she herself uses.
In our contemporary context, at a broad cultural level, religious types and secular types are harder and harder pressed to communicate substantially with one another about significant topics. All around them is strewn wreckage of the Tower of Babel. This is a shame, since people generally share in essential spiritual hungers. Oprah has somehow managed to have people across America confess these spiritual hungers both to themselves and to one another. That strikes me as the stock and trade of good ministry. Oprah makes an excellent minister because she is able to meet people where they are in any given moment.
I’ve yet to watch ‘Super Soul Sunday’, although I do have a couple episodes already recorded on the TV. I know quite well that a television show cannot provide the challenges and rewards that actual, populated faith communities can, week after week. But I worry that many of our faith communities have not been nearly as effective in their ministries as Oprah has. They have not extended as warm an invitation to the stranger. The present reality is that our country is full of the religiously unaffiliated and disenfranchised, so my skepticism around her Sunday morning program is roundly tempered with gratitude.
You have a chair and you have a chair and you have a chair and you have a chair and you have a chair and you have a chair and you have a chair — everybody has a prayer chair!
At least, everybody ought to have the option of a prayer chair; I believe that Oprah Winfrey has helped many millions realize that. The religious life involves a certain orientation in addition to distinct practices. Some people may take their seats at home in front of the televison, while others may take them beside their families in the church pew; still others may take their seats in the synagogue or mosque or on a zazen cushion in the temple. While there, they might start to think and feel differently about a few things, including the state of their soul, as well as the whole wide world it inhabits.
Why shouldn’t that be the start of something super?