Countless people have calculated—or rather, miscalculated—when the world would end. For many Oprah Winfrey fans, that apocalyptic event arrived at precisely 4 p.m. Eastern Time yesterday (Thursday, May 26, 2011) when, for the first time in two and a half decades, they sat in front of their TV sets and got the local news instead of their daily dose of wisdom and inspiration from the indomitable “O.”
The Oprah Winfrey Show ended its 25-year run this past week with three farewell episodes that combined to capture all of the grandeur, sentimentality, and congeniality that have come to epitomize the show and its iconic host. The first two final episodes featured a star-studded surprise guest list that regaled Oprah and thousands of her admirers who packed out the United Center in Chicago. The last show—episode number 4,561—was done in a much smaller, more intimate setting back on her usual stage at Harpo Studios, where she spent her last hour thanking fans, sharing thoughts on God, and recounting her best learnings from her years on the show.
Though I am not a diehard member of the Oprah Winfrey fan club, I must admit that I got a little misty-eyed watching the final episodes of her long-running talk show. I haven’t been a regular viewer of the show for many years now, only occasionally catching an episode whenever she had a must-see topic or guest. But in the early years, I was among those who were glued to the tube, checking out this fascinating woman—whose hair, lips, nose, and hips looked like my own and those of the other women in my family. For this black girl, transplanted from the inner-city to the suburbs, the idea of a black professional woman with the charisma and influence that Oprah wielded was foreign. She seemed larger than life. And in the minds of millions of people today, she is.
As her mentor and friend Maya Angelou would say, Oprah is a “phenomenal woman” who exemplifies the spirit of an over-comer.
The first black woman billionaire, Oprah created a veritable media empire in the span of just one generation. Besides her Emmy Award-winning, top-rated talk show, Oprah has started her own television network, a magazine, a bestseller-making book club, produced major motion pictures and TV movies, and even launched the careers of other household names, like Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, and Suze Orman. A bighearted philanthropist, Oprah has raised millions of dollars through her Angel Network to send deserving children to school, financed college educations for hundreds of young black men, built schools in Africa, and more. She has blessed millions of people with her servant’s heart, extreme generosity, and her uncanny ability to bare her soul and profoundly connect with just about anyone.
Over the years, Oprah has consistently motivated people to live their best life ever, teaching that anyone could achieve success regardless of past or present circumstances. She empowered people to pursue their calling in life, and encouraged them to look for life-changing “aha moments” and to be their authentic selves. If you want to make it happen, all you need to do is look within yourself, work real hard, and you will get it. That’s the Oprah way.
For that, people truly love Oprah—and some of that “love” borders on Oprah worship, according to many critics.
Many evangelical Christians have condemned Oprah for her brand of church-free spirituality that focuses heavily on self-empowerment, leaving very little room for the God she claims to know. In fact, Oprah has been called one of the most influential spiritual leaders in America because of the way people respond to her views on life and spirituality. And her talk show has given her the perfect pulpit from which to preach what some have referred to as “the gospel according to Oprah.”
Despite repeatedly giving thanks to Jesus Christ for her many years of success—including on her final show—Oprah has publicly advocated a pluralistic view of salvation that says all paths lead to heaven and God. That means that whether you accept Christ as your Savior and Lord or prostrate yourself before the Buddha, in Oprah’s way of thinking, you can be saved. Clearly, many biblically minded Christians take issue with that perspective, since the Bible teaches salvation through a relationship with Jesus Christ and Him alone.
Though Oprah never intended to become this maharishi to the masses, it is what it is. And many still worry about the impact of her spiritual vagueness and emphasis on seeking a God-consciousness on the eternal souls of her followers.
Very telling is the fact that audience members have had what looked like real religious worship experiences on her shows. They’ve done the ugly cry, shouted, danced for joy, praised their guru, and raised their hands in a fashion very similar to that of worshipers at a Sunday morning church service. One woman dissolved into tears as she shared how putting on an old pair of Oprah’s shoes (purchased at a charity garage sale) keeps her from slumping into a depression.
That’s a mighty powerful influence—one that I doubt will end simply because the show has. Oprah is so embedded in the hearts and minds of those who follow her that they will simply pursue her into her next phase of her career—and whatever else she decides to do after that.
Whatever it is, Oprah clearly demonstrates that it is possible to be a good person (maybe even a better person than some Christians) without being explicitly “Christian” in the evangelical sense. She has done what none of her peers could do. She has risen beyond superstar status to become a true American idol. And, whether you are fan or foe, you have to recognize that Oprah has it going on and the lives of millions of people will never be the same because God allowed a little black girl from Mississippi to pass their way.