The Gospel According to Oprah

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : March 5, 2007

One of my favorite news/opinion sources is  Yesterday, they posted a great article (called Oprah’s ugly secret) about Oprah’s promotion of a new book called The Secret–a book that sounds an aweful lot like a stripped-down, generic version of the Prosperity Gospel.  Here are some choice snippets from the article (with my own commentary to follow): 

…The main idea of “The Secret” is that people need only visualize what they want in order to get it — and the book certainly has created instant wealth, at least for Rhonda Byrne and her partners-in-con. And the marketing idea behind it — the enlisting of that dream team, in what is essentially a massive, cross-promotional pyramid scheme — is brilliant. But what really makes “The Secret” more than a variation on an old theme is the involvement of Oprah Winfrey, who lends the whole enterprise more prestige, and, because of that prestige, more venality, than any previous self-help scam…

…the rest of “The Secret” has a similar relationship to the truth. Here it is on biblical history: “Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Jesus were not only prosperity teachers, but also millionaires themselves, with more affluent lifestyles than many present-day millionaires could conceive of.” And worse than the idiocy and the bullshitting is its anti-intellectualism, because that’s at the root of the other two…

…And worst of all is the craven consumerist worldview at the heart of “The Secret,” because it’s why the book exists: “[The Secret] is like having the Universe as your catalogue. You flip through it and say, ‘I’d like to have this experience and I’d like to have that product and I’d like to have a person like that.’ It is you placing your order with the Universe. It’s really that easy.” That’s from Dr. Joe Vitale, former Amway executive and contributor to “The Secret,” on…

…But, far more than “spiritual growth” or “empowerment,” Oprah and the authors of “The Secret” focus on imparting the message of getting rich. Even the biographies of the authors of “The Secret” on Oprah’s Web site are revealingly fixated on their rags-to-riches stories…

…Not that any of this is new. Aimee Semple McPherson, “The Power of Positive Thinking,” Father Coughlin, est, James Van Praagh — pick your influential snake-oil salesman or snake oil. They were all cut from the same cloth as Oprah and “The Secret.” The big, big difference is, well, the bigness. The infinitely bigger reach of the Oprah empire and its emissaries. They make their predecessors look like kids with lemonade stands…

…They’re reaching more people than Harry Potter, for God-force’s sake. That’s why what Oprah does matters, and stinks. If you reach more people than Bill O’Reilly, if you have better name recognition than Nelson Mandela, if the books you endorse sell more than Stephen King’s, you should take some responsibility for your effect on the culture. The most powerful woman in the world is taking advantage of people who are desperate for meaning, by passionately championing a product that mocks the very idea of a meaningful life.

Check out the full article here. 

Is it me, or is the Prosperity Gospel coming back stronger than ever? It seems that folks like Oprah and Joel Osteen have revamped the Prosperity message, polished it up, and made it respectable–a sort of neo-word-of-faith movement.  This is the emerging American Religion–and it is being exported increasingly around the world. 

More and more, it seems to me, the evangelical church is being seduced by this sort of thinking.  It almost makes me nostalgically long for the days of fundamentalism.  I’ve met lots of evangelical leaders who are appreciative of Joel Osteen’s message of “hope.” 

This calls for an experiment…one that I hope is telling.  Watch Joel Osteen (or Oprah Windrey) the next time he (or she) is on television…sit and absorb the message.  Then, immediately following the broadcast, start reading the “red letters” in the Gospel of Matthew, starting with Chapter 5, or of Luke, starting at Chapter 4. 

Why is it that so much of Christianity is being influenced by so many different ideas and approaches to life, except Jesus’ ideas and approach to life?  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’m convinced that most American Evangelicals really aren’t interested in what Jesus has to say. 

It is like inviting Jesus to speak at your church.  But when he begins to preach, the congregation begins to boo and yell “hurry up and die so that we can be saved!”

Mark Van Steenwyk is the editor of He is a Mennonite pastor (Missio Dei in Minneapolis), writer, speaker, and grassroots educator. He and his wife Amy have been married since 1997. They are expecting their first child in April.

for further reading . . .


9 Responses to “The Gospel According to Oprah”

  1. Aric Clark on March 5th, 2007 5:53 pm

    Wow - it’s really horrible that Oprah would get it on this, given her cultural influence. Prosperity Gospel is anything but the “Gospel” it is a corruption - a pernicious and destructive one, instead of offering hope as it claims it offers slavery. That’s really disappointing.

  2. storbakken on March 5th, 2007 7:30 pm

    I actually read this story earlier today. I also enjoy reading Salon regularly. They have some quality articles, but their religion series has been oppositionally biased against Christians. This article was refreshing. Thanks for the critique of the article.

    More fire!

  3. ron on March 5th, 2007 7:57 pm

    Makes me think of the scene in Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. Jesus returning to earth. ” In the tale, Christ comes back to earth in Seville at the time of the Inquisition. Jesus performs a number of miracles (echoing miracles from the Gospels). The people recognize Him and adore Him, but He is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burned to death the next day. The Grand Inquisitor visits Him in His cell to tell Him that the Church no longer needs Him. The main portion of the text is the Inquisitor explaining to Jesus why His return would interfere with the mission of the church.

    It makes you wonder about parts of the North American Evangelical christianity…has Jesus become an interference to what it is they are trying to market. What the life Jesus offers can only be experienced through dying. The lie of the secret is, that life can be bought, or sold…that life is about you only.

  4. Anna on March 6th, 2007 9:20 am

    Somewhat related–

    Our church has had a teaching series running for over six months on Old Testament characters. Almost any regularly attending person can preach (given prior approval from the pastor) so the viewpoints have been varied and sometimes interesting. Still, almost all of the preaching/teaching has left out any connection to Jesus. Imagine, six months in a church with nary a mention of why we are actually there!

    Aaarrghh….I’m ready to preach on the Sermon on the Mount!

  5. Rustin on March 7th, 2007 11:06 pm

    It is like inviting Jesus to speak at your church. But when he begins to preach, the congregation begins to boo and yell “hurry up and die so that we can be saved!”

    Wow. Funny. In a disturbing way.

  6. Jeff on March 8th, 2007 12:48 pm

    Prosperity is coming on strong with a new lighter, less-filling version (aka “Prosperity Lite”). The polished up version is more mainstream than ever, infiltrating otherwise well-intentioned churches with remixes of health & wealth, positive thinking, and self-help programs. I suppose it won’t be long before we see Oprah appearing on Osteen’s show.

  7. Cullen on March 10th, 2007 1:54 pm

    The trick is to catch them early. I recently dismantled my brother-in-law’s prosperity inclinations over a ten minute conversation, but he had just recently began drinking the kool-aid.

    In my experience, when they sit around in the prosperity pew for too long, they feel like their arguments are seamless and stop listening to contradictory evidence, zooming in on proof-texts and ignoring the big picture. If you can speak to them when they’re coasting on vague notions of “sowing-reaping” principles, the crucified God wins.

  8. dlw on March 11th, 2007 2:22 pm

    I think the problem is not “wealth” per se(Deut 8:18), but rather how wealth gets individualized and the plenty of Scriptural evidence that shows how great personal wealth can subvert following Jesus or being faithful is ignored.


  9. markvans on March 12th, 2007 2:16 pm

    Sure, wealth isn’t the problem per se. Wealth is merely the abundance of material assets…and those assets can be used as a blessing or be used selfishly (and as such become a curse). Wealth is dangerous for us, given our self-centered predisposition. Often, wealth enhances our ability to live into the seven deadly sins. In our modern era of hyper-individualistic consumption, it makes sense that we’d find a way to re-orient Christian spirituality around individualism, greed, and the “American Dream.”

Got something to say?