Mags: Oprah's brand of spirituality

Oprah Mag June 08

When you run the same face on the cover every month, you’ve really got to work the power of a strong cover line. The intrigue factor of ‘We’re starting a beauty revolution (say bye-bye to feeling bad about your looks)’ – possibly a reference to Nora Ephron’s book I Feel Bad About My Neck – has kept me from abandoning the June issue of O The Oprah Magazine (Surprise: Oprah’s on the cover!), to my ‘never did get around to reviewing it’ pile (would you believe it’s wastefully large?).

As a spiritual girl, for whom faith has become, in recent years, more important than acquiring Marc Jacobs pumps (no one ever said I didn’t occasionally stumble), Oprah’s brand of woman-of-the-world, easily digestible and life-applicable Christianity has huge appeal for me. The woman is, after all, a former preacher and journalist, who aspires to live like Jesus Christ. Quite the challenge, I imagine, for someone who is idolized, monetized, busy and hugely successful. The cornerstone of Jesus’ appeal was his absolute humility and selfless service and sacrifice – as well as his unfailing devotion to a life led by the Lord (i.e. not of his own choosing). As such, Oprah’s probably on the A-list at Heaven’s door.

Oprah’s magazine, owned by Hearst, isn’t preachy, though the May issue dealt almost entirely with the issue of spirituality. Essentially, what this magazine does is provide another means for her audience to get their Oprah fix (and make Hearst/Oprah some more cashola). On another level, it also caters for a market somewhere between mainstream women’s magazines, which largely steer clear of religion (unless they’re reporting on the latest Scientology scandal, giving it to Polygamists or investigating a Morman sect), and the Christian woman’s market, which is full of titles that mostly verge on daggy. As such, the concepts employed by positive psychologists are more the guiding editorial philosophy than overtly Biblical principles (which, as you might have noticed, often appear in my sidebar).

Women like to be in control of their lives – a concept in conflict with Christianity (God is in control). From what we eat to where we work out, educate ourselves, marry, get married and invest (or spend) our money (see the ‘Take control of your money, honey’ coverline), we’re happiest (or so we think) when we’re calling the shots. This means when something doesn’t go according to our plans, or someone upsets the balance, we grow frustrated and miserable… and indulge in a little retail therapy, over-eating or wine drinking.

In this post-feminist, fast-paced, achievement-driven era, the idea of waiting patiently for guidance and accepting sometimes life takes us in a different direction to that which we’d hoped is completely foreign: ‘going with the flow’ is for hippies – if you want something, you go ahead and get it. And when we get it (the job, the Marc Jacobs pumps, the man) and find that we’re still unhappy or unfulfilled, we go ahead and make plans to get the next thing: the Masters degree, the mortgage, the baby). And if we’re still not happy, we get a publishing deal and go to an Indian ashram, a divorce or a sneaky little face lift. Will we ever be truly satisfied? Who or what is driving us into this state of perpetual want? Where are our expectations coming from?

Last month Oprah interviewed Eckhart Tolle, one of her spiritual idols; this month she interviews Maria Schriver, her friend of 30 years. As you know, Schriver is the wife of Californian governor, Arnie Terminator, as well as a member of the Kennedy family and a very successful journalist who was forced to leave her plumb job at the NBC due to a perceived conflict of political interest. What Schriver and Oprah have in common is drive, a determination to exceed expectations and please other people, and lives defined by their work. However, after being forced to jump off the career treadmill in 2003, Schriver told a women’s conference last year, “You can spend the rest of your life trying to figure out what other people expect from you… or you can make a decision to let that all go. For this people-pleasing, legacy-carrying, perfection-seeking good girl, that was a news bulletin.”

Schriver’s values were inherently Kennedy: competitiveness, working vacations, public service, accomplishment. In the interview, Oprah tells her friend that at 25 she didn’t know what to do with her life, despite at that stage having a job reporting the news and weather and preaching on Sundays, and that she was always anxious, to which Schriver replies:

“I always thought the answer was the next thing. If I worked a little harder, produced an incredible show, wrote a best-selling book, anchored the morning news, won a Peabody Award, worked with the Special Olympics, then I would be les restless… I made the mistake of thinking that external accomplishments would bring me peace… Losing my job at NBC News was big. I identified myself with my job.”

Schriver says she’s not the person she was four years ago: now is content to ‘just be’, rather than live at an exhausting pace: “I thought being a workaholic was good; it isn’t. I regret that I didn’t take time to stop and enjoy my friends or to have intimate experiences with people in my life, to talk to them and be quiet with them. I was too busy running against my restlessness… I’ve tried to craft the job of First Lady into a role that reflects me. That’s about connecting people, empowering and inspiring them… I’m trying to live my life from my heart, being authentic to who I am… A friend of mine told me, “As long as you keep on playing the game of trying to be ‘the right Maria’ for everyone, you’re never going to deliver the real Maria. You don’t even know who the real Maria is’… The most terrifying thing of all for me was to just sit with myself; I didn’t know how to be alone… Being able to be by myself is part of knowing that I’m enough.”

This is a sentiment echoed in another of the magazine’s features, “You’re the fattest ballerina”, by Mary Wilshire, 54, an illustrator with a penchant for superheroes and comic books who has had compulsive eating issues her whole life, thanks, in part, to her alcoholic father, strict English Protestant background (appear to be perfect) and the suicide of her mother: “Feel compassion for yourself. What God wants from a girl is for her to be who she is. This is your highest spiritual purpose.”

Unfortunately, for most of us, it will take a lifetime of striving before we wake up one day and realise that the answer to who we are meant to be, how we should live our lives and what purpose we should serve is already within us – we’re just too busy climbing the career ladder, losing weight, raising families, fighting wrinkles, and meeting the world’s great post-feminist expectations to notice.

Overall excitement factor: 8
Feel-good factor: 8
Eye-candy rating: 2 (this is Oprah, not Vogue)

The Stats
Issue: June 2008
Book size: 246 pages
Inside front cover: Cadillac
Back cover: Covergirl
FOB ads: Target, Chanel gloss, Gillette (Tiger Woods), Citi, Chevy, Tiffany & Co…
Founder and Editorial Director: Oprah Winfrey
Editor in Chief: Amy Gross
Editor at Larger: Gayle King
Publisher: Hearst

Yours truly,
Girl With a Satchel


Lady Melbourne said...

What an insightful post, this is why I read GWAS everyday I think.
Thank you for the review and sharing with us your own views on spirituality, it was inspired me to go and pick up the magazine and have a read- which I wouldn't normally do with Oprah!

Erica Bartle (nee Holburn) said...

Thank you, Lady Melbourne. You are always so gracious. Your personality matches your wardrobe!

fashionista said...

Great post, Erica. There is a lot of "food for thought" in what you wrote.

Your "bloggie blessing",

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that thought provoking post :)

However, as a Christian girl myself, I’m a little concerned about the likening of Oprah to Jesus Christ…

Whilst Oprah is a generous woman, I think she is also a ‘pin up’ for affluence, which is obvious when you see pictures of her house. And whilst to the world she might seem like a good person (as she gives away so many things/money), we as Christians know that being good or generous doesn’t make you Godly… We can’t judge others, but we can’t put them on a pedestal either…

Also, I think Oprah is going to be very answerable to God one day, as you wonder how much money she gets for promoting the latest crazes – she seems very new age to me. One such craze is ‘The Secret’ book – which totally goes against everything we as Christians know to be true. We aren’t our own source of power or knowledge, God is (However, It’s hard to be a Christian – by acknowledging God’s power, people think you are naïve or weak. Yet if God is for you – Who can be against you?). In this way, Oprah is quite dualistic – she might acknowledge God and morals, but she is also quite postmodern with her view on the world, which is not consistent with Christianity.

I have been thinking a lot about your post for the past few days, but it wasn’t until I read today’s Purpose Driven Life devotional, which spoke about ‘bumper stickers’ that prompted me to write this response. It basically said that we have to be careful what we associate with and promote, ie. Ensuring bumper stickers and drivers match.

I really enjoy your blog and the issues it often raises. Thanks for posting, I hope your blog can be used for the glory of God … Which is after all our calling as Christians :) To try our best to live a life that is pleasing to him – To be in the world but not of it.

Thanks GWAS!

Erica Bartle (nee Holburn) said...

Hi anonymous,

I've been thinking about that post, too (my husband and I had quite a heated discussion about Oprah the other night!), and I have to agree with you. I think Oprah at least deserves credit for putting spirituality out into the public realm, but the extent to which she practises what she preaches is questionable. And, yes, she is very open-minded when it comes to spiritual fads, like The Secret. I have to admit that, as a Christian woman living in the world, who's exposed to a lot of new ideas via the media and my work as a journalist, I can sympathise with Oprah's position (she's definitely a woman of the world - why so many people relate to her, I suppose), though don't necessarily approve of or support it. It is tough to be a devout follower of Jesus - the hardest road you can choose is to turn your back on your own desires and wishes and ambitions. I consider myself a work in progress.

Thank you so much for adding your very articulate two cents.

God bless,

Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree - we're all a work in progress. It's so hard to be a Christian in the contemporary world when there end up being fine lines between liking nice things and materialism, and submitting to God and freedom of choice as far as career/life choices, etc go. There are such hazy lines sometimes and so often we all fall short of the glory of God. But we can only learn and move on, and try harder next time.

I admire your reflection :)

Thanks GWAS!