To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Review of Stephen Mansfield's book Where Has Oprah Taken Us?

Disclaimer:  I received a free copy of this book through the blogger reviewer program at Booksneeze in return for writing an honest review. I received no other compensation.

Stephen Mansfield’s book Where Has Oprah Taken Us? chronicles Oprah’s spiritual biography and some of the cultural influences that have made her audiences so receptive to her eclectic spiritual ideas. It exposes the conflicts between traditional Christianity and Oprah’s pastiche of beliefs drawn from widely divergent religious traditions. The premise is that Oprah, through her celebrity influence, has normalized the idea that religious truth is weighed more by how our feelings resonate with it than by scriptural evidence.

Mansfield is a talented writer and a man of faith. I do think this is a book worth reading, but I can only give it 3 stars out of 5 because I think Mansfield turns a judgmental eye in the wrong direction and in doing so, kills the appeal of the book for anyone except those who already agree with him. This is unfortunate and ironic since the author made such a point of identifying himself as an evangelical.

I believe that Mansfield is correct in saying that Oprah’s faith is not in accord with the teachings of historical Christianity, for all of her laudable good works. I think that he offers some eye-opening revelations about how Oprah arrives at her own version of truth, even if I also think he sometimes paints with too broad a brush. Before we pass judgment on Oprah, though, let’s get the board out of our own eye. Oprah hasn’t taken us anywhere except right down the road that we evangelical Christians paved for her.  As a young adult trying to find God in the midst of residual pain from an unstable childhood and sexual abuse, she found in Christianity a set of burdensome rules, not grace. While I heartily wish she had investigated Christianity further, we are remiss if we do not accept our own responsibility in failing to communicate God’s healing love to her strongly enough. 

What’s more, we ourselves ensured that her future audience would find her brand of "how does it make me feel" spirituality appealing. We have failed to teach our youth or our converts how to discern real truth from subjective emotion. We have fostered a culture of Christian entertainment that glorifies celebrity and the opinions of celebrities. We have embraced a cult of personality by elevating pastors and performers to unrealistic heights. We have baited seekers to join our club with the things the world finds appealing instead of offering real community and real substance. We were making all of these mistakes before Oprah’s rise to spiritual stardom. If Oprah’s brand of feel-good-self-actualization disguised as spirituality has found a foothold among Christians or led seekers astray, we must blame ourselves first.

Mansfield only gives the slightest of nods to the idea that the Church has been ineffective in offering living water to seekers such as Oprah. I think it deserves much more attention, and a more humble approach would certainly be more likely to convey our sincerity about our faith to Oprah devotees. I would love to see Mansfield turn his pen to the subject of what the Christian church might have done to produce a different outcome to the Oprah story. I don’t mean to absolve Oprah from her considerable hubris or her unfortunate choices, but I think we should remember that Jesus reserved his sharpest words for church folk. I think lots of church folk will read this book and find it right on the mark, enthusiastically highlighting in yellow all the parts they agree with that show where Oprah’s theology is all wrong. Sadly, Oprah’s followers will likely not rush to unite with those church folk after reading this book. It’s a shame. We “evangelicals” are great at talking to each other, but we’re often hopelessly inept at communicating with those outside the fold. The irony would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.

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