The Order of Saint Oprah
-- Aaron Curtis
Is there incipient within the modern cult of the self a desire for a more constrictive way of life? Have those of us who live comfortably within the lax constraints of secular humanism discovered that we long for some rigorous "rule of life"? Some means by which to order a welter of consumer choices (including religion) into a more cohesive lifestyle? One might be inclined to pose such questions in light of the recent spate of "rule of life" experiments, such as A.J. Jacobs' year of "living biblically" or Barbara Kingsolver's year lived as a "locavore" (both of which were turned into bestselling books), or, most recently, one Chicago woman's self-imposed challenge to "design her life" in strict accordance with all of Oprah Winfrey's advice. But what this last experiment reveals, surprisingly, is not so much a desire for a more disciplined lifestyle as an inadvertent reaffirmation of a reigning brand of cultural orthodoxy.
At first glance, it would appear that the experiment undertaken by "Lo"—a pseudonym for "Living Oprah"—has, at best, only a tenuous connection to religious practice. This impression is reinforced by the blog she keeps to track her progress and by a July 10 Chicago Reader article on the project, which features an image of Oprah in a pose and garb resembling Chairman Mao, above the title "The Great Commander." Both the article and Lo's blog emphasize the political and socio-economic implications of this particular cult of personality, opting to leave unexplored the suggestion left by one blog visitor that Lo wear a "WWOD" bracelet, as well as Lo's own impression, after attending Oprah's show, that "it was like a church revival."
But there are two crucial respects in which Lo's "practice" bears an interesting resemblance to more traditional devotional practices. First of all, Lo has chosen to relinquish her power of choice entirely (what she eats, watches, reads, et cetera) and is committed to a faithfully neutral obedience (however much her initial intent may have been critically motivated). She asks, "Will I truly find bliss if I commit wholeheartedly to [Oprah's] lifestyle suggestions?" The true value of the experiment has less to do with the effectiveness of Oprah's advice taken piecemeal than with the change effected on the life of so absolute a follower. Secondly, the project's "faith" is invested in the possible results of predominantly physical practices—that is, without need of an attendant belief in their effectiveness. This bears a certain similarity to a strain of ascetic practice that insists on the power of bodily regimentation to bring about a desired change in one's "spiritual" orientation, rather than vice versa.
However weak these similarities may be to what some would deem "authentic" religious practice, they nevertheless serve to reveal the nature of the "religion" of Oprah's followers. Aside from some supportive advice for the struggling neophyte, the most revealing reaction to the "Living Oprah" project has been that of suspicion and even defensive hostility. On the one hand, Lo is violating an unstated but generally assumed norm of the community: Oprah is beloved as a personality at the center of an alluring communal identity and her authority is to be taken on faith; to test it in such a systematic and empirical fashion is to commit a form of sacrilege, or, at least, to miss the point entirely. On the other hand, and far more significantly, Lo's practice is suspect precisely because it diverges from the orthodoxy of this community. One visitor to the blog responded, "Why would you try to take someone that is only trying to do good things on this planet and make a mockery of her? … I watch Oprah. And take what is important to me and what touches my life. Whether it be medical advice, inspirational stories, her own personal actions or experiences, it's up to you to take from it what you need at that particular time." Here we have a perfect articulation of a prevalent form of modern spirituality that some, especially in orthodox and evangelical circles, have labeled "flexodoxy" —what theologian and scholar N.T. Wright describes as "free-for-all, do-it-yourself spirituality."
The prevalence of flexodoxy is not news. But it is surprising that, with Lo's experiment, the culture of flexodoxy should end up asserting its own orthodoxy—deciding for oneself what one needs, when one needs it. Those aspects of Lo's project that do resemble more traditional religious practices are precisely the ones that are most threatening to this particular "faith community", in which membership is based more on belief than on rigorous practice, and absolute obedience violates the norms of flexodoxy. By refusing the right of choice and by failing to see value in a sense of belonging rather than in practical effects, Lo is failing to live by Oprah's "rule of life" in its most fundamental sense.
The Chicago Reader story on Lo's project can be read at:
Aaron Curtis is a PhD student in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School.