Tuning in: Oprah’s Gift of Generous Listening
Here’s a shocker: When I was thirteen years old, I argued with my mother. I know—clutch your pearls. It’s appalling. These fights weren’t quiet disagreements, either; I was theatrical, surly, and eternally victimized by regular life—especially the part in which my mom had opinions. She insisted that I button up my awesome plaid flannel instead of wearing it like a jacket? WRONG. She wanted me to use a facial cleanser before applying makeup? WRONG. She thought I should shut my smart mouth if I wanted to try out for cheerleading? SO. WRONG. And I, being the arrogant and sophomoric adolescent I was, could not stand idly by while she lived her life in a state of abject wrong-ness. I had to let her know, in loud, sarcastic tones, exactly how and why her errors came to be.Oprah’s habit of listening, of searching out the truth, of being gracious and advocating for forgiveness and loving strangers—that is good and right.
My mom tried all kinds of strategies to get me to hush, including barring me from cheerleading tryouts—a deserved setback from which I thought I’d never recover. But the most powerful thing she did during those trying times was to reach for the remote. An hour after I arrived home from school, Oprah came on. Each weekday, the familiar theme song transformed me and my mother from frantic opponents to devoted co-fans. It was a concession that I had to make: my mom was right about Oprah.
This parenting move was pretty clever. My mom’s reward was two-fold: Oprah shut me up, and the topics of her show served as good Conversation Starters, the prize of parents everywhere. Oprah interviewed teenagers about safe sex, and I learned that some misguided adolescents used bread bags as condoms. (This, my mom assured me, did not nullify the consequences of premarital sex, nor did it alter in any way the immorality of such behavior. I, meanwhile, was so caught up in the shock of people my age having the gall and lack of supervision necessary to fornicate that I couldn’t imagine how they might do it with impunity.) My mom and I watched Oprah’s Favorite Things shows and wondered aloud what we would do with so much disposable income. We learned from Oprah how to evade and escape abduction, how to lose weight, and (theoretically) how to dance like Tina Turner.
And there were times when my mom didn’t have to say anything for good sense to sink in. Oprah talked about child abuse, and I became quietly grateful that my mom and dad had committed to making my home a safe place. I vividly remember a show about American kids going hungry; a teenager from Chicago explained that he watched cooking shows on television after school, longing for the food on the screen to be real and accessible to him. I was incredulous, angry, ashamed of my insatiable privilege. But, more importantly, I was wiser, and a little more thankful.
Toward the end of her daytime talk show career, Oprah became increasingly vocal about her personal spiritual beliefs. My mom and I talked through that, too: how the impulse to let emotions trump theology can be powerful, and how easy it is to simplify religious pluralism so that it sounds like a credible approach to faith. Like many evangelicals, we were disappointed with her rejection of the truth of Jesus. And even though Oprah claims to be a student of faith who is continually learning, it’s apparent that she’s held fast to her rejection of any orthodoxy. Her new show, Belief, explores every kind of religion. It’s not a search for truth, but an inquiry into the human spiritual experience. Despite her Christian upbringing and her fluency in quoting Scripture, Oprah is anxious to hold everyone’s personal preferences in equal balance. It won’t surprise anyone if Belief finally turns out to be a lesson in religious pluralism.
That religious pluralism became painfully clear the day that Oprah flatly denied, in front of her live studio audience, that Jesus is the only way to approach God. But even though my mom and I knew that Oprah was wrong about Jesus, we didn’t stop watching; in fact, we are still fans of Oprah. And that simple idea that I could continue to engage with someone who openly opposes the most precious beliefs I hold—that has been a monumental lesson. I have no doubt that if I were to meet Oprah to discuss faith, she and I would have a delightful conversation, one that would provoke reflection, thought and disagreement. I believe we would walk away with a respectful friendship—Because that’s what Oprah does so well: she has managed to engage a diverse audience for decades, a feat virtually unparalleled in modern society.
While there are a myriad of opinions on why she was so incredibly successful, I think the answer is rather simple: Oprah is a great listener. She has sat down with dignitaries, deadbeats, and everyone in between, and she has managed to treat every person she interviews with genuine interest. People joked, sobbed, reflected, and jumped all over Oprah’s famous couches, and she invites viewers in—not so much as spectators, but as friends. She forges an emotional connection with her viewers, a simple, rare kind of relationship. She takes obvious, genuine joy in knowing people and blessing them, so much so that the internet has made her an icon of ridiculous benevolence. Oprah has become a representation of outrageous generosity. I’m sure corporations sponsored many of her legendary giveaways, but at the very least, she chose to turn our focus toward the wild thrill that comes from things like giving cars to every single person in the audience. When all of her other efforts have been forgotten, Oprah will still be famous for her love of delighting others.
I want to be clear: Oprah’s theology is wrong, and I hope you will join me in praying that she return to the gospel she learned as a child. But her practice of celebrating and championing others is right. If we look at the gospels carefully, we find that Jesus did not leave behind a manual for how to do Christianity, but rather a band of flawed followers with a story—a true and beautiful and good story that would change the world. Jesus didn’t tell us to go find best practices, but to make disciples. We are called to build people up in His image. That work, the work of gaining trust and reputation, is hard, but it is the work we must do before the reality of God’s incredible love can be communicated. Oprah’s habit of listening, of searching out the truth, of being gracious and advocating for forgiveness and loving strangers—that is good and right. Let’s not forget her, and continue to hope that she will hear the truth of Jesus and embrace it. Evangelical Christians, we who are so fast to draw party lines and evaluate who is in and who is out, would do well to stop and listen, really listen, as Oprah has modeled so well for us.
These opportunities to love, to nurture, and to embrace are everywhere. You get one. And you get one. And you get one.