Marcia Z. Nelson: 'The Gospel According to Oprah'
By Jennifer E. Jones
Oprah. She needs no introduction. Her talk show, now in its 20th season, earns her millions of dollars and millions of fans. Her involvement with movies, books, magazines, and television has made her the queen of her own empire. Her life is on display daily to the public yet the specifics of her personal faith are a mystery. With an influential realm that spans the globe, what is the Christian to do with Oprah? Marcia Z. Nelson answers this question and more in her new book The Gospel According to Oprah.
Why dedicate a whole book and a year of study to Oprah Winfrey?
When I was first approached in 2002 by Westminster, I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend that much time in front of the television with Oprah. I’m not a big TV fan. Then I found myself working more on popular culture. I began to see more and more that Oprah has this incredible influence, and I was very curious about that. She spoke the truth, and she spoke it very simply. The simplicity of her message is what struck me the most.
It seems like there is a spirit of excellence in everything she does.
Her production values are top flight. She started out her show with four people helping her. Now she has 250 at Harpo. Then there are the magazines and the movies. She’s built her own platform. She has good instincts as a businessperson.
In the book you touch on the human aspect of Oprah. She’s not perfect, and she's not afraid to show that.
That’s the key to why people relate to her. She’s failed, she’s flawed, and they relate to her.
Why do you think her “Favorite Things” show is so popular?
Well, everybody wants something for nothing [laughs]. But I think also what I like about the “Favorite Things” show is that it celebrates generosity. It doesn’t say: “You ought to give. You better give.” It says: “Giving is fun!” That’s a wonderful way to deliver the message. She makes giving fun. She is genuine.
One thing that Christians have told me that they don’t like is that she keeps her spirituality purposely vague. Do you think Christians should be attached to Oprah?
I don’t think Christians should be ashamed that they like Oprah. It’s important to remember that Oprah is an entertainer, not a preacher. She’s not Billy Graham. She’s not going to do an altar call. Her faith gives her a sense of mission and purpose and is a personal touchstone for her. I also know that she can see the faith that has changed the lives of her guests. She acknowledges and respects that. The show is not a platform for bringing people to Jesus. It’s for bringing people to awareness of good, virtuous practices like generosity, gratitude and forgiveness. Her vocabulary is inclusive, rather than vague. It does not sit well with some Christians who believe that you have to explicitly say that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Then she wouldn’t have the mass platform that she does. She would turn some people off by that. She’s talking a more general vocabulary. That’s strategic. I think her own faith is there, and paradoxically, it’s private. In the South Africa show, she is leading a prayer service on film. That kind of thing happens, but being that explicit is not central to her mission. I think she’s working out her own vocabulary being so inclusive. That’s why she worked through that new age period. That’s where a lot of traditionally religious people said, “Well she’s got Gary Zukav on her show.”
She also had Iyanla Vanzant. That did not make a lot of Christians happy.
[Iyanla] is not on now. Oprah changes her advisors and the particulars of her message like she changes hairstyles. She was trying to define spirit. She deliberately tries not to offend. I think she’s worked out a way to do it.
How did you feel about her after doing all this research?
I admire her a lot. I think she’s a force for good in this culture.
Purchase 'The Gospel According to Oprah'
Message Board: Discuss your thoughts on this interview.
CBN IS HERE FOR YOU!
Are you seeking answers in life? Are you hurting?
Are you facing a difficult situation?
A caring friend will be there to pray with you in your time of need.