Instead of sitting in a wooden pew, hymnal in hand, listening to a preacher as folks in the back shout “Amen!,” Kirkland is sitting on the couch in her pajamas, a cup of coffee in one hand and the remote control in the other, while her 6-year-old son, Jason, plays nearby.
For three hours (assuming Jason allows it, “which is rare”), Kirkland watches Super Soul Sunday, a block of programming on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), which includes interviews with a variety of religious and spiritual leaders, as well as short films and documentaries.
“By exploring themes and issues including happiness and personal fulfillment, wellness, spirituality and conscious living, these programs present an array of perspectives on what it means to be alive in today’s world,” according to OWN’s website.
Kirkland is an admitted religious “mutt,” raised by parents who rarely attended church but instead explored various religious philosophies ranging from Buddhism and Hinduism to Christianity to “weird self-help gurus.” She has never felt comfortable in a traditional worship service.
“It’s just not where I belong,” she said without apology. “Faith and spirituality and religion are very personal things for me. So I do what works for me. And if that’s sitting on the couch watching TV or reading a book, that’s fine. What difference does it make how I find my own sense of inner-peace — spirituality or whatever you call it — just as long as I find it?”
As a 38-year-old, newly divorced mother, there are times when Kirkland feels overwhelmed, like she “can’t breathe” and she needs something inspiring. She said Super Soul Sunday gives her that.
“The shows are engaging, uplifting and inspiring,” she said. “They make me think, which is something that too many so-called ‘religious’ people act like they’re afraid to do.
“I believe in God, which means different things to different people. And I’m a fan of Oprah — but I don’t worship her.”
Winfrey has become a spiritual leader, declared so by no less than Christianity Today. “To her audience of more than 22 million mostly female viewers, she has become a postmodern priestess — an icon of church-free spirituality. Oprah’s brand of spirituality cannot simply be dismissed as superficial, civil religion or so much New Age psychobabble, either. It goes much deeper.
“The story of her personal journey to worldwide prominence could be viewed as a window into American spirituality at the beginning of the 21st century — and into the challenges it poses for the church.”
Mara Einstein, author of Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age, wouldn’t go quite that far.
“I think of her more as a faith brand,” said Einstein. “She’s a supplement to some people’s faith, but I wouldn’t consider her a leader.
“Do women look to her in terms of spiritual growth? Yes. But they also look to her for weight-loss advice, makeover advice and the best books to read.”
Salad bar religion
Oprah Winfrey has often used her platform to explore spiritual and quasi-religious topics, turning some of her most frequents guests into household names.
She championed the “medical intuitive” Caroline Myss, who claims emotional distress causes cancer. She helped launch Rhonda Byrne, creator of the DVD and book franchise The Secret, which in essence teaches that just thinking about wealth can make you rich.
She invited the “psychic medium” John Edward to help mourners in her audience talk to their dead relatives. She’s turned unknown authors into New Age gurus, including Deepak Chopra (aka “Deepak Oprah”), who began as an endocrinologist before publishing numerous self-help books on spirituality and alternative medicine.
Winfrey was so impressed by Eckhart Tolle’s book A New Earth that she co-hosted 10-weeks of Internet seminars based on Tolle’s “let-go-and-breathe” counseling on peace through silence and stillness.
Oprah, who was raised in a rural Mississippi Baptist church, described how she reconciled her Christian upbringing with Tolle’s teachings.
“What I believe is that Jesus came to show us Christ-consciousness,” she said in 2008. “That Jesus came to show us the way of the heart … to show us the higher consciousness that we’re all talking about here.”
If looking for an example of Winfrey’s galvanizing power as spiritual leader, Rice University sociologist Michael Lindsay suggests her role during a time of national mourning.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the national memorial service was at Washington’s National Cathedral, conducted by Episcopal clergy.
After the 9/11 attack, Winfrey organized the official memorial service at Yankee Stadium, and, while clergy participated, she was the master of ceremonies.
“Americans believe in everything,” Lindsay told USA Today. “It’s a spiritual salad bar. Rather than religious leaders setting the cultural agenda, today, it’s Oprah Winfrey. … She uses the language of the Bible and Christian traditions and yet includes other traditions to create a hodgepodge of personalized faith.”
’I’m the way’
A recent Pew Forum survey found that 92 percent of Americans believe in God, and 70 percent — including a majority of all Christian and non-Christian religious groups except Mormons — believe that “many religions can lead to eternal life.”
“A lot of people say they are religious or spiritual, but don’t say what they’re religious about,” said Philip Morris, pastor of Heflin Baptist Church. “I think we’re in a day and age where everybody’s spiritual, everybody’s going to heaven. But that goes against what the Bible teaches.”
Ricky Breazeale knows what it means to seek.
The campus church team leader for Mountain View Church in Anniston grew up in a strict, religious household where he was told how to dress, how to talk and how to believe.
While on the outside he would “plaster on a fake smile” and go to Sunday school acting as if he knew all the answers, on the inside, he was overwhelmed with questions. He understands why some people don’t define themselves as “religious,” preferring a softer term like “spiritual.”
“I think a person who is spiritual is someone who’s taking a long, hard look at themselves and trying to understand their place in the world,” Breazeale said. “The reason people don’t like to call themselves ‘religious’ is because it’s got so many negative connotations … it conjures up a system of principles you abide by, but people are stripping that away. When it comes to God, in a biblical sense, rules don’t apply.”
Breazeale doesn’t like to call himself a “Christian,” preferring instead to say that he’s a “follower of Christ.”
“Young people today don’t want to believe something just because the preacher stood up and said it,” he said. “They dig out the truth for themselves. It’s healthy. People need to own their spirituality. Faith, or in my case, Christianity, becomes very shallow if you believe something only because that’s what you were told or that’s how you were raised.”
Yet, Morris would argue that in America’s current religious landscape, there are too many alternatives, and some seekers end up lost.
“We’re so religiously diverse that it’s almost as if by being Christian there’s something wrong with you,” he said. “People like to say there are many ways to God, but it all boils down to Jesus saying, ‘I’m the way.’ ”
While it might be easy to blame high-profile personalities like Oprah Winfrey for popularizing spirituality over traditional religion, in truth, she is simply a reflection of American society.
“She wouldn’t put it on TV if she didn’t think people would watch it,” said Pam Kirkland. “And I, for one, am glad she did.”
Contact Brett Bucker at email@example.com.
‘Super Soul Sunday’
Sunday: 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN).
Feb 5.: Will begin airing at 10 a.m. Sunday.
This week: Programming will focus on “The Journey Within,” including ways of coping when the going gets tough.