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Oprah’s Beliefs

Oprah’s Beliefs

Halfway through Oprah Winfrey’s grand new series exploring the religions of the world, there are mixed reactions to its aims and impact.

On Sunday, as the show was about to launch, Diana Butler Bass wrote in the Washington Post:

At a time when many people in Western countries criticize religion as hypocritical, divisive or dangerous, and while large numbers are rejecting religion altogether, Winfrey’s project is a worthy reminder to viewers that religion can heal, restore and transform — and not only fracture. For this reason alone, the show “Belief” deserves respectful attention as it provides a much-needed alternative narrative to the increasing public disdain of faith.

More than that, Bass comments that the series does not focus on traditional religious authorities, but uses the stories of individual believers to illustrate their own religious affiliations.

Across the planet, people are taking responsibility for their own versions of meaning and, in the process, are remaking faith in ways that are more inclusive, more personal, more connected to the natural world and more attentive to their community.

“Belief” narrates this often-ignored but startling story: The age of top-down religion is over. That age is being replaced by an age in which even people who faithfully maintain distinctive religious identities are engaging in do-it-yourself spiritual journeys that often lead in remarkably similar directions of love, healing and justice toward a God (or gods) close at hand.

Bass sees this as a return to the roots of belief:

The shift toward spiritual democracy is changing the actual nature of belief. For the past few centuries, the word “belief” has, in English at least, become shorthand for “opinion about.” So religious beliefs are understood by many contemporary Americans and Europeans to be what they consider increasingly dubious opinions about God and salvation that are taught by authorities they do not trust.

With the move toward personal engagement with faith, the do-it-yourself revolution of religion, the word “belief” is returning to an older connotation of the word. Before “belief” came to mean “opinion,” it typically referred to devotion or trust. It was an experiential word, and not a philosophical one, that indicated what a “believer” held dear or loved. “Belief” was a disposition of the heart.

But Joel J. Miller calls this wholehearted embrace of the individualist approach “sloppy”:

Not only does this approach disregard what various religions and traditions say about themselves, it elevates the individual over them, who now arbitrates for himself what’s true, what’s good, what’s beneficial, and so on. …

This is not a return to an older sense of belief. It’s negating that older sense and replacing it with whatever tickles you today.

Rod Dreher goes a lot further in his critique at The American Conservative website. He gives his position away with his title,  “The Great Oprahstasy”:

The take on world religion endorsed by DBB, and imputed by her to Oprah, is, of course, apostasy. It is the seductive self-worship of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism gone global. It is a greater enemy to authentic Christianity than anything the State may conceivably concoct. If you want to know what the fiercest foe of orthodox religion sounds like, don’t read Richard Dawkins or the New Atheists; instead, read that Diana Butler Bass column.

Jonathan Merritt, writing at the Atlantic, recognizes Oprah’s reputation for “squishy spirituality,” but writes that

Belief allows the message and core tenets of every religion to shine through in a way that honors them while remaining honest …

Often, the only information believers receive about other faiths comes from religious leaders within their own tradition. This information may be riddled with myths, or border on propaganda. Belief provides a stage on which each religion can make its best case and be considered on its merits.

His conclusion?

It should not be missed. Believe me.

The show airs nightly all this week on the OWN channel (the Oprah Winfrey Network). I will confess that I have not yet watched any of the documentary series, but the range of reactions intrigues me. Have you seen it? What is your response to the show, and to its critics?

Photo credit: Episode 4, “Change is gonna come,” via http://www.oprah.com/

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Erin Garlock

I am not usually a fan of Oprah, but my response to critics is that there seem to be two unanswered questions here. Why might someone engage a religion on their own terms, or to borrow the phrase, "bottom-up"? Secondly, in a Christian context, is this a legitimate and valid path to follow?

I can see where people would eschew traditional denominations or institutional religions because of distrust, past experience, or even finding none that offer a meaningful path. In a self-guided path, there is of course the risk that a person would elevate their self above the tenets of said religion, but is this not really the foundation of all cults - the corruption of an idea to promote self. This leads to my second question.

If we assume that the intent is to remain true to the teachings of Christ, is this a legitimate course? I believe scripture answers this for us in in Mark 9:38-41, notably verse 40, "for whoever is not against us is for us".

I was a Christian before I claimed any particular denomination or asked for membership in any church. I read, studied, and worshiped. I couldn't claim a denomination or church at this time, I didn't know anything about them, and I wasn't going to join one like it was some sort of high school clique. I'd be curious to hear a response from Dreher or Miller on how this journey was unfaithful or flawed.

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Leslie Marshall

For me, the only question is...'what/who' I put my faith in? Do I have faith in the wind? do I put my faith in a guru? do I put my faith in the moon & the stars? No. My faith is in Jesus Christ . He alone is worthy...because he created the wind, the guru, the moon and the stars and he alone can justify me with God. Oprah is 'wowed' by everything under the sun...which can take her only so far. It still falls short. And so her search continues...

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JC Fisher

I strongly suspect your "Jesus Christ" is Leslie Marshall. As Oprah's "Wow" is Oprah. As JCF's "God" is JCF (that is, lil' ol' me). We ALL do it. Kyrie eleison, and please don't judge.

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Laura Darling

I've been watching the episodes every night and it is magnificent. Far from being individualistic, the representatives for each religion are deeply invested in their faith communities and practices. This is, in fact, exactly what we hope for: that people will take in the teachings and tenets of their faith and apply them to their lives.

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Prof Christopher Seitz

Liberating, one supposes, for European Catholics like ES.

He'd surely find this new form of religion from the bottom up about 1% of what he meant. My hunch is he'd use a biblical term for it. 'Idolotry.'

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Ann Fontaine

Edward Schillebeeckx said that the church would change from the ground up. The pressure would come from the people and eventually the top would respond. http://ncronline.org/news/people/edward-schillebeeckx-herald-god-among-us
The Church with a Human Face is a must read.

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