c. 2008 Religion News Service
(UNDATED) Oprah Winfrey has become a catalyst for a new journalistic project and increasing news coverage by conservative Christians questioning and criticizing her spiritual beliefs.
Some evangelical Christians have voiced alarm that Winfrey is introducing the 46 million viewers who watch her each week to nontraditional spirituality they don’t condone.
In May, two dozen Christian newspapers pooled their resources to publish an article titled “Oprah’s `gospel”’ that prompted higher readership and more letters to the editor than any story some of the individual papers had ever published.
In a first-of-its-kind venture, the evangelical newspapers hired Colorado writer and editor Steve Rabey to write the story.
“For some Christians who have considered themselves part of Oprah’s electronic family, her sins against evangelical orthodoxy have increased in number and seriousness,” Rabey said.
In recent months, Southern Baptist newspaper editors also have written editorials declaring “It’s time for Christians to `just say no’ to the big `O”’ and calling her a source of “foolish twitter and twaddle.” And Charisma, a prominent charismatic and Pentecostal magazine, ran a story in its July issue with the headline “Oprah’s Strange New Gospel.”’
Lamar Keener, publisher of the Christian Examiner regional newspapers in California, came up with the idea to work with a dozen “mom and pop” publishers to address Winfrey’s theology.
“Our point is we want our readers to be aware that what she is teaching does not represent traditional, historical Christianity, according to the Scriptures,” said Keener, who also is president of the Evangelical Press Association.
Twenty-three monthly papers from across the country and Canada published the story and distributed 500,000 copies to churches, Christian bookstores, doughnut shops and other outlets.
Keener was inspired after viewing a video titled “The Church of Oprah Exposed,” which has had more than 7.2 million hits on YouTube.
“It’s taking actual clips off programs,” Keener said. “That’s what got my attention.”
One of Winfrey’s quotes highlighted in the story is her belief that “there couldn’t possibly be just one way” to God.
“One of the mistakes that human beings make is believing that there is only one way to live,” Winfrey said.
A spokesman for Winfrey’s Harpo Productions said the celebrity is a Christian.
“Oprah was raised Baptist and has stated many, many times that she is a Christian and that she believes in only one God,” said the spokesman, who asked not to be named. “She has also said, `I’m a free-thinking Christian who believes in my way, but I don’t believe it’s the only way, with 6 billion people on the planet.”’
The spokesman noted Winfrey is hardly alone; 70 percent of Americans said “many religions can lead to eternal life” in a recent survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Part of the evangelicals’ concern stems from Winfrey’s recent embrace of Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth” as the first spiritual book she included in her hugely popular book club. In the July issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, she said the book’s advice on “putting the ego in check” had a “profound impact” on her.
“Spirit to me is the essence of who we are,” she said. “That essence doesn’t require any particular belief. It just is.”
Charisma editor J. Lee Grady said Winfrey’s recent discussions of hypnotism on her show may have prompted more people to question her views.
He has long thought Winfrey did not embrace “an orthodox belief in Jesus Christ,” but he thinks other Christians may just be starting to draw that conclusion, sparked in part by what they learn about her on the Internet.
“There’s definitely an alarm because so many people watch her, that she could lead people into New Age belief or deception,” he said.
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Religion writer Marcia Nelson, author of “The Gospel According to Oprah,” said criticism of Winfrey by conservative Christians dates to 1998 when she included a spiritual emphasis on her TV show.
“Back then she got pretty much lambasted the way she is being lambasted now, for telling us what to believe and telling us the wrong thing to believe in, according to conservative Christians,” said Nelson.
But Nelson, who studied a year of Winfrey’s shows, differs with those who call Winfrey’s spiritual ideas “New Age.” She says Winfrey would be more related to the “New Thought” movement, which is more mainstream, focusing on positive thinking as a spiritual tool rather than crystals, for example.
“I absolutely regard her as a Christian but … she’s one of those capacious Christians,” Nelson said.
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(Editor’s note: Marcia Nelson and Steve Rabey are occasional correspondents for Religion News Service.)