The scholars found conflicting sources of Ms. Winfrey’s spirituality. It began, but definitely does not end, with the black church of her youth. In her 2003 book, “Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery,” Eva Illouz, a sociologist, quotes Ms. Winfrey as saying: “Since I was three and a half, I’ve been coming up in the church speaking. I did all of the James Weldon Johnson sermons” — Mr. Johnson being the poet whose “God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse” was published in 1927. “I used to do them for churches all over the city of Nashville,” Ms. Winfrey said.
Dr. Illouz, who teaches at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, found that elements of the black church, like its emotionality and focus on justice, “pervade ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show,’ which has taken on the vocation of relieving a multiplicity of forms of suffering through the use of speech infused with the rhetorical style of black preachers.”
While respecting Ms. Winfrey’s use of her Christian heritage, Dr. Illouz ultimately concluded that the talk-show host might be something of a false prophet. That is because, she said, Ms. Winfrey and her cadre of self-help experts treated suffering as something beneficial. Ms. Winfrey turned the black church’s ethos of self-reliance in the face of suffering into an exaltation of suffering itself.
“By making all experiences of suffering into occasions to improve oneself,” Dr. Illouz wrote, “Oprah ends up — absurdly — making suffering into a desirable experience.”
And if, as Ms. Winfrey’s teachings suggest, strong women “can always transcend failure by the alchemy of their own will and of therapy, then people have only themselves to blame for their misery,” Dr. Illouz said.
Ms. Winfrey has religious antecedents besides the black church. Kathryn Lofton argues in her new book, “Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon,” that to understand Ms. Winfrey it helps to know Charles Grandison Finney, the great antebellum evangelist.
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