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

Monday, March 24, 2008


Carmen has me doing some homework. I'm trying to finish the informative and insightful book by my friend, Lou Markos (From Achilles to Christ) and work my way through a new critique of "The New Atheists" by David Aikman (The Delusion of Disbelief). That seems like enough. But then Carmen comes in this morning having spent time Easter weekend watching Oprah's Big Give and talking with a friend about Oprah's increasing role in women's lives as guru and priestess. Carmen feels a personal responsibility to respond as a Christian woman with a public platform. I'm all for it. But until today, I didn't know much about Oprah's role in promoting ideas, books and personalities best described as sources for learning New Age spirituality. Thus, the work begins.

Since we are talking about it this week, I spent much of the day Monday getting up to speed on Oprah, her spiritual advisors and influences, Marianne Williamson, the XM radio daily "devotion" in A Course in Miracles, etc. I'm tired now, and I need to go to bed. I'll try to find time to keep up my philosophy studies and develop course ideas for the intellectual history of Christianity (important, not urgent stuff). I'll try to squeeze in book three in the Pullman trilogy, and I'll keep researching Oprah so I can be a good depth commentator when Carmen needs one. Hopefully, the effort will be worth it: to help people discern without bashing, so they can reply to friends and family with skill, gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Has it Come to This?

Okay, I give.

Having posted NEW STUFF here, consisting of:
  1. "Word of the Day" from (right column);
  2. "Philosophy Ramblings" from (bottom);
  3. Audio / Video, mostly to make my lectures available (right),

I feel like I at least owe it to my listeners / readers to go all the way, making a complete whitenerd-fool of myself. So I posted the infamous "Bill Boomin'" video. tobyMac will be horrified. So will my mother (God rest her soul).

Have you ever had one of those moments where you just went with the flow, let down your hair, etc. only to have it immortalized and mass-distributed? I now know what it feels like to be one of those poor saps on America's Funniest Home Videos (and lose to a kitten). Ugh.

On the other hand, there is a kind of perverse pleasure in knowing just how shocked and mindblown my children, grandchildren and former professors will be when they see this. May my foolishness be ultimately redeemed as a counterpoint to the serious tone often set by this overly Presbyterian father. Rock on (Colossians 3:23)!