This review originally appeared in The Catholic Herald.
Oprah: Gospel of an Icon
By Kathryn Lofton
University of California Press, £15.95
Kathryn Lofton is an assistant professor of American Studies and Religious Studies at Yale and her first book represents a perfect fusion of those two disciplines. The American talk show host Oprah Winfrey, she says, provides a brilliant and telling picture of what religion looks like in 21st century America. Her thesis is simple: Oprah has become a cultural phenomenon because she has fused religious idiom, consumerism and celebrity obsession to forge a terrifyingly potent global brand, one that is as much a religion as it is a corporate entity.
Yes, it’s the sort of thesis that has you reaching for your pistol. And yes, in places the book’s language recalls the worst excesses of pop culture studies. More than once, it reminded me of Slayage, the hilarious – and apparently peer-reviewed – “journal of Buffology” (that’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer Studies to you and me).
But here’s the thing: it’s actually really difficult to know what, in 50 or 100 years, will be considered culturally significant. The history books are full of artists we now consider geniuses who were shunned, ignored or ridiculed in their own time – or not even recognised as artists at all. So we ought to try to judge books like this on their own terms.
Who’s to say whether Oprah will acquire an added resonance due to some future event we can’t yet know? She’s certainly widely admired for the media empire she has erected around herself. And isn’t there something odd about the rabidness of her fans? Something more akin to an evangelical preacher’s flock than a daytime chat show host’s audience? So perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to mock this new bit of, dare I say it, scholarship about one of America’s greatest cultural figures.
Of course, if Lofton is right – if Oprah and the products of her empire “offer a description of religion in modern society” – we have cause for serious concern. Surely what drives the hysterical suburban moms wild about Oprah is greed, enabled by lack of intelligence and spiritual integrity.