Kathryn Lofton, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (2011) by A.T. Coates

Katie Lofton’s Oprah: Gospel of an Icon is one of the most exciting recent works in American religious history. As I said of the “secularism” in John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America, I see this book as far more than just a text “about” Oprah. Though it certainly brings insight into its subject, it presents something much more important: Lofton, along with a cohort of young scholars, has inaugurated a new way of doing scholarship in this discipline. The book doesn’t just drape theory over its subject, but advances new theoretical models for the study of culture/religion. It doesn’t stand in admiration of the creative agency of its subject, but critiques a politics and theory that would celebrate the agentive subject. It’s difficult to avoid performing this book while reviewing it. Lofton’s book reminds me of the babysitter I had who used to come over wearing a Kurt Cobain t-shirt, ripped jeans, and redolent of cigarettes: idiosyncratic and confident, casually nonconformist, supremely knowledgeable and world wise, and way, way cooler than me…

This book tears down the wall between religion and culture. Oprah is a celebrity and an icon, a brand and a philosophy, a CEO and spiritual leader. She has a weight problem and an anxious bench, a multimedia corporate empire and a plan of salvation. By discerning the deep religious roots of Oprah’s language, rituals, and practices, Lofton tells a much bigger story about the relationship between religion and culture in modern America. In Oprah’s realm, consumption transforms—Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, or none besides, if you buy the dress that flatters your figure and feel fabulous about yourself, you practice Oprah’s spirituality. If you come up to the couch and share your awakening story—whether you realize that you’re too fat, that you have been abused, that you’re gay, that you need a new hairstyle—you can transform, receive the gifts of O, and begin to experience your best life, now. Writes Lofton, “Oprah… emerges as the exemplar of… the combined categorical freight of religion, spirituality, commodity, and corporatism. To study modern religion—to study the modern American economy—requires thinking of these categories as conjoined, and not distinct” (10). In this supposedly secular modern age, Oprah reveals just how blurry the boundaries between religious freedom and consumer choice have always been.

In analytical terms, Oprah: Gospel of an Icon doesn’t always satisfy. Though Lofton offers an extended meditation on the iconic O of Oprah’s empire, we hear very little about what an icon might be, what makes this an icon and not that, how this O becomes special. On a similar analytic note, some of the deep religious resonances Lofton identifies in Oprah don’t sit easy with me: why, for example, should readers believe that Oprah’s Book Club shares more with the Chautauqua circuit than with, say, a Christian Science reading room? Why, as a revival preacher, is she more Finney than Moody? The only halfway satisfying answer I’ve come up with is that this book says so, I believe it, that’s good enough for me, and this book is too important to be bogged down with such quibbling. Often, I got the feeling that I was being swept along by this book and just had to accept its unusual sources and claims for the sake of its larger argument. Lofton cites omnivorously, from Jorge-Luis Borges to Candy Gunther Brown, from David Chidester to a University of Chicago BD thesis from 1922. In terms of sources and historical precedents, the book just seems a little too selective, its tone just a little too dynamic and not quite precise enough.

But this book’s significance far outweighs my petty objections. Like the babysitter who taught me what grunge was, it puts something new on our scholarly horizons. Lofton argues that we don’t need to fawn over our subjects to take them “seriously.” She insists that we stop upholding the imaginary divide between religion and culture. She demonstrates that our critical posture and practical agnosticism do not mean we have to remain politically disengaged, merely observing the American religious landscape with wonder. She dares to suggest that religious studies has something important to teach others about what it means to live in a modern, consumerist, “secular” age.