University of Rochester

EVENT: Scholar Explains the Religious Aspects of Oprah

October 12, 2007

Oprah Winfrey has a television show, a book club that turns her selections into bestsellers, and a monthly magazine. But some say Oprah isn't just show business––she's a spiritual industry. Kathryn Lofton, assistant professor of American studies and religious studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, will dissect what she calls the "ritual practices" of Winfrey's empire at the University of Rochester later this month.

Lofton will deliver "Missionary Envy: Oprah Winfrey and the Exported Makeover," on Tuesday, Oct. 23, at 5 p.m. in the Hawkins-Carlson Room of Rush Rhees Library on the university of Rochester's River Campus.

Anthea Butler, assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester, said Lofton's lecture will highlight the ways in which African-American women's "mother wit" and wisdom have been converted into pop spirituality.

"Oprah's media presence allows her to carve out an alternate space for women's spiritual and religious concerns that are not policed by authoritarian or patriarchal clerical figures," Butler said. "This allows her to have a worldwide following rivaling many religious figures today."

Lofton specializes in 19th- and 20th-century American religious history, and she has published articles on the evangelical preacher, theological modernism, civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, and masculinity in religious research, along with those on the ritual practices of Winfrey's multimedia empire.

Lofton approaches Oprah as a potentially religious subject, as someone committed primarily to spiritual change through material means. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Lofton called Winfrey a "hip and materialistic Mother Theresa" and notes that she "has emerged as a symbolic figurehead of spirituality."

Through the elaborate donation of extravagant gifts to weary, selfless, working moms, Winfrey offers her own version of spiritual renewal, Lofton said. "Missionary Envy" will focus on Winfrey's turn to South Africa, where she has opened two schools devoted to bringing her style of revolution to disenfranchised African girls.

The lecture is part of "Religious Cultures of the African Diaspora: New Trajectories of Inquiry," one of nine projects funded by the Humanities Project, an initiative by the University of Rochester emphasizing the influence and contributions of the humanities to academic and civil life.

Butler, one of the main organizers of the African Diaspora project, said the goal is to introduce the public to the myriad of religious practices of the African Diaspora, and to dispel many of the myths surrounding them.

"Images of witch doctors and the like have characterized depictions of African Diaspora spirituality, and it is our hope that the series will help participants to gain an appreciation of the depth, substance, and cultural richness of African Diaspora religions," she said.