Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Spirituality and Oprah Winfrey

I’m about to do something I nearly always encourage people not to do. In fact, one of my personal goals, as long as I am behind a pulpit, lectern or microphone, is to encourage (read: push) Bible-believing Christians not to jump on bandwagons, not to accept sloppily-reasoned, poorly researched (and often sub-biblically supported) critiques or censures. This conviction notwithstanding, however, I need to offer a few gut reactions on the Oprah Winfrey stuff we’ve been discussing on The Morning Cruise. I begin with the disclaimer, because most of my quick research has been via the internet and from secondary sources, with the exception of reading the material from Marianne Williamson’s daily radio scripts for Oprah and Friends on XM and trolling the websites of Williamson and Gary Zukav (and a few others).

It is a benefit, however, to have a background in theological studies and to have taught an introductory college class in world religions. Certain themes and concepts appear in the teachings of Oprah’s stable of spiritual authorities which prove to be transparent borrowings, evident to the trained eye. For example, of Eckhart Tolle, currently teaching a web event for Oprah’s Book Club, states: “Eckhart Tolle is a contemporary spiritual teacher who is not aligned with any particular religion or tradition.” Yet the bookseller offers this description of his bestseller, A New Earth:

Tolle describes how our attachment to the ego creates the dysfunction that leads to anger, jealousy, and unhappiness, and shows readers how to awaken to a new state of consciousness and follow the path to a truly fulfilling existence.

Anybody with me here? This is Buddhism 101 for Western Dummies! Nirvana is the state of extinguishing the self. It is the goal of awakening for humanity, trapped in maya, a world of illusion, and a way of escape from moksha, the wheel of existence and rebirth (concepts borrowed from Hinduism). The first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is: life is suffering (including “anger, jealousy, unhappiness”). Tolle is “not aligned with any particular tradition?”

In fact, as far as I can tell, much of the wisdom dispensed by Oprah’s spiritual advisors is little more than Westernized, psychologized versions of Eastern religious concepts that are as old as civilization. There is nothing new under the sun.

That thought brings me to my analysis, such as it is, of how and why Oprah’s endorsement of A Course in Miracles must be understood and rejected by Christians. My goal is neither censure nor activism, but rather equipping the reader to discern basic distinctions between a Christian / sub-Christian worldview, that you might “test everything; hold fast what is good and abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22). From what I can see, Oprah’s intentions are not evil. In fact, I disagree with several Christian commentators I’ve read who omnisciently assert that Oprah’s heart-motivation for promoting all these New Age books and teachers is money. To the contrary, I suggest Oprah’s actions have been consistent with her mission of trying to improve women’s lives, turning to New Age teachers in the process. Furthermore, many Christian women and men are living very close to the same deception – a deceit that replaces their faith in the transcendent God with techniques of self-transcendence. I’ll explain these terms in a minute.

Specifically, it is a short step from self-improvement to mind sciences, and Oprah has (unwittingly?) taken that step. Using her own rags-to-riches experience as a paradigm of possibility, Oprah has turned to articulate and charismatic motivators like Dr. Phil and Suze Orman to educate and captivate her audience of over 40 million viewers. While much practical advice can be found on The Oprah Winfrey Show, there is no filter for spiritual advice except “self-improvement.” When one does spirituality (or theology) with SELF at the center, the New Age is crouching at the door. New Age religion-blending spirituality has a common focus with self-help advice – the self.

I am being subjective, but ironically, the subject is the problem. In other words, it is I who want to be happy, healthy, wealthy and wise, but the thing preventing me from all this is… I! What I need is to feel better about myself, stop beating myself up, start being the I which I am in the Universe to be …”brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous” (Williamson, Lesson 1). In spirituality like this, the self (subject) becomes (incoherently) the object of self-improvement. The only philosophy/religions where such contradiction can fly are Buddhism and Hinduism. Not to knock these great world religions, but I must remind you how inconsistent they are with Christian faith and practice. In biblical terms, the self is created by God with dignity and purpose (Psalm 8 – we are “crowned with glory and honor”), but also fallen and in need of Jesus’ cross of redemption (Luke 9:23 – deny yourself and take up the cross). Salvation and redemption of the self thus lay outside and beyond ourselves (transcendence), not within us.

Oprah’s spiritual tutors often speak in Christian terms like, “We were born to make manifest the glory of God...” (Williamson, Lesson 1). But be sure, the terms are only there to be redefined within a larger system, or worldview, that is entirely unbiblical. A Course in Miracles, the basis for Oprah’s daily radio “devotional” program taught by Marianne Williamson, is a case in point: it was “dictated” to Columbia University’s Helen Schucman (d. 1981), a psychologist, by an inner Voice purporting to be Jesus. The problem is that this Jesus – let’s call him “Spirit Guide Jesus” – preached another gospel, contrary to the one he taught, lived and died for according to the Bible (doubt the Bible? Listen to my class on the development of the New Testament in the audio links just to the right side of this screen). Guess what that Bible says about ANY “spirit guide” that preaches another gospel?

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed (Galatians 1:8).

I don’t feel like we’re on solid ground here, following Schucman’s inner Voice. But we are on familiar ground.

In fact, looking at the whole Oprah phenomenon through the widest-angle lens, I see something that looks a lot like a modern recapitulation of a movement challenging early Christianity called Gnosticism. Briefly, Gnosticism is the contemporary term for a bunch of blended religious and philosophical stuff, unified by this key idea: salvation through (self) KNOWLEDGE (gnosis). Some people confused Christian teaching with Gnosticism. Some still do, but true Christian faith is 180 degrees from Gnosticism. Here’s the good news of the gospel: we can’t save ourselves by turning inward. Our only hope is in what God has already done for us – taken all of our faults, fears, sins and selfishness and judged them in the crucifixion of his Son, Jesus Christ. Faith, not knowledge, saves us (Romans 1:17, 2 Corinthians 5:17).

My conclusion is that Oprah is, probably completely unintentionally, playing the role of a 21st century patron of neo-Gnosticism. For more on Gnosticism – more probably than you ever wanted to know – please listen to my Gnosticism talk under “audio teaching.” Again, I don’t think Oprah is malicious in her intent, based on her mission of improving women’s lives and her own experience of seeking wholeness and bettering her life through that search. Unfortunately, based on what she is espousing and promoting, I believe Oprah is deceived and deceiving others.

The best article I found and from which I formulated some of these thoughts is by Kate Maver, a graduate of Chicago Theological Seminary. It can be found under this link at the Christian Research Institute:

A farily detailed analysis / warning to believers from a former New Ager named Warren Smith:
Note: this gets into the question of "mainstream" Christian teachers embracing some of the authors / ideas categorized as New Age. I am not interested in pursuing this. Too often, Christians buy hermetic "conspiracy theories" and discredit their own. On the other hand, when I see New Age, I don't care who is teaching it, it should be critically discerned and openly rejected. responds to the question, "Is Oprah pushing a New Age Christ?" and gives good info about A Course in Miracles:

Dennis Babish has a thoughtful commentary on Oprah's role as New Age discipler on Chuck Colson's BreakPoint website:

Here's a candid and informed report by Terry Mattingly on Oprah's core beliefs:

This is cool: an interactive worldview comparison chart from Summit Ministries - New Age beliefs would be under the heading, "Cosmic Humanism":

And now, the primary resources: - You'll find links to Marianne Williamson's XM radio class here and Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth web event. - our source for the audio of Oprah's exchange with Christian women in her audience on the question of Jesus as the only way of salvation


Carmen said...

And this my brother is why we love you! Thanks for educating us . . . once again!

WendySue said...

Thanks Bill. That was thoughtful and thorough. I have been a "fan" of Oprah for years, but when I think about HER background, and what she's come through in HER OWN life,it wasn't this teaching that helped get her through... it was a loving God and her true Christian faith as a child. We should all continue to PRAY that she gets back to the TRUTH and shares THAT with the world (wow- THAT would be SO awesome)... and ALL things are possible with Christ!
Excellent posting ... Wendy

Ben Cooper said...

I really appreciate the research, time and effort it took to compile this post. God has definitely given you the gift of teaching.

bethypoo2384 said...

some friends and i were just recently discussing oprah and how we didn't feel like she was an atheist or non-believer, but when she spoke of God... it sounded more like a higher power than the Alpha, Omega, Creator of everything. so i really appreciated your insight and agree that she seems genuinely concerned with helping others but is obviously misguided. this actually clears up a lot of things for me... lol

thanks, you're the bomb!


Anonymous said...

what would Jesus do in your position? Would he condemn as you are? Or would he open up his arms and smile with love? That is the source of the writings you discuss; top open up minds and hearts to THE LOVE OF JESUS.

pescalera said...

I appreciate your insightful information about "The New Earth". I love Oprah and really respect her, so I really tried to read the book and get as much out of it as she did. However, I just could not relate to it at all. Even though "Jesus" references were thrown in periodically, I just didn't feel comfortable with this being Jesus' teachings. I put the book down a couple of weeks ago after reading a few chapters because I felt so uneasy about it. I agree with you that I don't think Oprah is intentionally being malicious. I believe she thinks she is truly helping. I had asked God to direct me on the book and guess what...I accidentally hit the button for your radio station this morning and guess what you were talking about. It was no accident, and of that I am sure. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...


Thanks again for this well thought critique. It is an 'inter-action' with her thoughts as opposed to the standard 'reaction' that evangelicals have.

Oprah's motivation is not money. She has tons of it. Tons.

You have challenged us to not blindly accept Oprah's teaching, and rightly compared her with Gnosticism. Right on.

But you were gentle, not attributing to her motivations that don't exist, and still highlighted the positive stuff of helping women.

Thanks for not only the information, but for modeling the Christ honoring path of critique. Jesus did plenty of critiquing in his days to those who were self righteous and loved money. Critiquing is different than condemnation and we have to do it or else we'll accept whatever thought or lifestyle is popular.


Anonymous said...

Bill, I'm very surprised to see this post because it has become a huge topic within my group of friends. I've seen videos of Oprah show excerpts where she denies that there is only one way to heaven. She basically was saying that good deeds will get you there and to not put the path to heaven in one little box. It was pretty disturbing to hear this because people who may not be educated in Christianity can be easily mislead if that is their only source!

I don't believe that Oprah is a bad person, but I do believe she has wandered off of the path. She said that "One day I was sitting in church and I heard the pastor say 'God is a jealous God' and I was like, why is God jealous of me?" and that was one of her 'waking moments.' It's sad to hear this because she obviously didn't understand the context to which that quote belongs.