The Gospel According to…
May – June 2002
Oprah Winfrey is, without a doubt, one of the most influential celebrities in the world today. Her TV show reaches 22 million people a week and is broadcast in nearly 160 countries around the globe. She has a website: www.Oprah.com. It gets 1.3 million visits per day. She was just featured on the cover of Fortune Magazine, and currently she controls and runs a near billion dollar media empire. Her reach is unprecedented. She is charismatic. She is compassionate. She is compelling, and she is a spiritual guru and a sage of practical advice to her millions and millions of fans. Tonight, I want us to look at Oprah Winfrey – her story, her influence, and, most importantly, her gospel.
Oprah’s story: She was born on January 29, 1954, in Kosciusko, Mississippi. She was born and lived on a farm in a very rural area. She was tossed around as a kid. Sometimes she lived with her grandmother in Mississippi. Sometimes she lived with her mom up north, but she spent most of her formative years with her dad and step-mom in Nashville, Tennessee. And there in Nashville, her dad would take her every Sunday morning to the Progressive Missionary Baptist Church.
And as a little child, Oprah loved to read the Bible. She was very gifted at memorizing Scripture. And sometimes she would go out, if she didn’t have an audience, and preach to the chickens and the cows and the pigs. She had a knack for understanding Scripture, and people in her church began to call her preacher woman. So despite her childhood that was troubled in many ways, there was a spark or a light in her that made many people think: “This person is going somewhere.”
She went to Tennessee State to school, and when she was 19 she dropped out to become the first black anchorwoman for a station there in Nashville. After that, she went on to become a reporter in Baltimore, Maryland, and then she landed a job in Chicago as a local talk show host. And, believe it or not, she was pit against Phil Donahue. Now, Phil Donahue was the very first person on TV to do this talk show format that we’ve become so accustomed to or in some cases disgusted with today. He was the king of talk, and Oprah had this brand new local show that was pit right against Donahue in direct competition. Within months, Oprah was gobbling up his market, and she eventually became nationally syndicated. And, as they say in show business, the rest is history.
When you look at her story, it’s really amazing. I mean she has survived poverty, prejudice, sexual abuse…all these things to become arguably, the most powerful woman on the planet, at this very moment. Now, I like Oprah, and many of the people that I am going to talk about in the following Sunday nights, I like them. And I can appreciate and respect many things they do in their particular sphere of influence. There are some people I could have done a message on that I don’t like, that I actually despise, like Bill Maher. But let me tell you a little bit about why I like and respect Oprah in many ways.
First of all, I like Oprah because in 1994, when all these TV talk shows were entering into the Jerry Springer, Howard Stern zone, Oprah made a commitment that she was going to try to put out a quality program and deal with issues that had some sense of substance and meaning. I also like her because on her show, not always (I watched it Monday, and she was talking about how you can have all these makeovers and had Victoria Principal and all this stuff; I guess it’s great for women, but it didn’t hit me.), but many times she deals with very sensitive and very touchy subjects in a very professional manner. And I really believe she has a heart of compassion, and I believe she has a desire to help hurting people, and to pass on the life lessons that she has learned in the school of hard knocks, as she has gone literally from rags to riches. I respect her for that.
Also, Oprah is a person who puts her money where her mouth is. I am appalled many times when I look at these so-called celebrities and politicians and see what they give to charity. Oprah gives, she says, 10% of what she makes, which is a whole lot of cash-ola, I might add. She gives 10% of that millions and millions of dollars to charities that are seeking to help children and that are seeking to help wipe out illiteracy. She is doing work in many countries around the world, most recently South Africa.
So, she uses her power and uses her influence in a very constructive way. I also respect her because she is an extremely talented actress and brilliant talk show host. You don’t have to watch long to realize she has that spark about her and is able to connect with her audience very quickly.
So, in saying all that, when we look at her tonight, and as we look at these other figures in the following Sunday nights, let’s be careful not to throw Oprah out with the bath water. We need to be able to look at any show or read any book, to look at any person right now in our culture, and to see what is good, what can we learn from them, and what are some of the things they are teaching that are actually not beneficial to our culture.
So, what concerns me about Oprah is her gospel. Webster’s dictionary defines “gospel” in many ways, but one of the definitions is this: “Something accepted as infallible truth; something that is used as a guiding principle.”
Here’s what Colossians says about how we are to grow in our faith and critique, if you would, other gospels. Colossians Chapter 2Verse 6 through 8: “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in Him, rooted and built up in Him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends upon human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.”
There are many people in our culture today, many well-intentioned people, like Oprah, like O’Reilly, like others that teach a lot of good, but there are many things that they say that as Christians we must stand up and say: “That is not right. That is not what we believe. We disagree.” So, we have to, as believers, take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ and be aware of the worldviews and the philosophies being spewed at us through the mainstream media and within our associations at work and at home and in our friendships. So, let’s look at Oprah’s gospel.
What is the gospel according to Oprah? If I had to put it in a sound byte, I would say that her gospel could be summed up in this statement: Don’t worry, be happy. Because her message, as you watch her show, as you read quotes from her, you look at her website, is about self-fulfillment. Whatever you need to do to find your path, your authentic voice, whatever you need to do to find happiness, whatever you need to do to be self-actualized, whatever you need to do to feel good about being you, then you do that and you pursue that with passion, and with excellence. So her gospel is a very therapeutic gospel. It’s a very feel good message that seeks to embrace everyone and offend no one.
If you look at it philosophically, you will see that her gospel is also a mixture of Eastern mysticism and Christianity. And time doesn’t really permit me to critique all the esoteric, spiritual dogmas that she promotes through her guides, such as Gary Zukav, Marianne Williamson, Yama, and VanZandt. If you want to see what they teach and what she promotes, you can go to Oprah.com (1.3 million do; why not you?). So, you can go to her website and look at different views that they teach on reincarnation, on karma, on spirit guides, on hearing the voice within you—which is all contrary to the Bible.
But for time’s sake, and for simplicity’s sake, I want to hone in on one of her beliefs. And it’s not just her belief; it’s not just original with her. She didn’t come up with it, and she is not alone. There are millions and millions and millions of people who hold to this belief or this statement that she makes, uncritically. It’s an assumption, but somehow it’s universally true. It’s very Americana. It’s very PC. You’ve probably heard it before at work or at school, and you may hear it at your house. But here it is; here is the quote. And here is what I want us to talk about today, and really learn how to answer this particular truth claim and present the Christian worldview, as well.
Oprah says, “One of the biggest mistakes humans make is to believe there is only one way. Actually, there are many diverse paths leading to what you call God.” This quote from Oprah is really a summary of what I call the great mountaintop metaphor, as it refers to religion and God. For example, what she is saying is you have this gigantic mountain. And at the top of that mountain, at the summit, is God, or what you call God. And then winding up this mountain are these different roads or paths. And these different roads or paths represent the different religions and philosophies of the world. And this particular view, this view of religious pluralism says that all of these paths, though they are different—they use different language, different terminology—they are all seeking to find the same thing, and they ultimately wind up at the same place: at the top of the mountain with God.
Now, that seems like a very humble, a very all-embracing statement. How can you argue with that? How do you respond, or how should you respond to this seemingly humble, tolerant, inclusive statement about God and religion? The first strategy you can use in dealing with this particular claim is to ask probing questions. Once you start asking a few questions about this statement or other statements, you will begin to see the hidden assumptions that are not in this statement. These are things that people pre-suppose that are unchallenged.
For example, if I had to sit down and talk with Oprah or someone who believes this—which is your next door neighbor, which is a person you work by—I would ask them this: Are you saying then, in this mountain metaphor or all diverse paths lead to God, that all these paths are equal? And they would probably say, “Sure, they are equal.” Why are they equal? “Well, they are equal because all these paths begin on the bottom level and end up at the top.”
The next question I would ask, which would be a pretty difficult one to answer, I believe, would be: How do you know they all reach the top? Ever think about that? You have all these diverse paths and diverse religions, how do you know that all these paths ultimately lead to God? The first thing they may respond with is, “Well, I don’t know. I just believe that.” So, I would say that you are saying you just believe that—you have no justification, no grounds for this particular belief. So you accept this statement by faith that it’s true.
But I will go on and say: You know what? The only way you can know that all these diverse paths, these roads reach the top of the mountain, is if you are standing at the top of the mountain. How else can you know that all these different roads go to the top? So, if I could talk with Oprah or millions of others who believe this, I would ask them that question. How did you come to this transcendent position where you know for sure that all these diverse paths lead to God? Do you understand that?
So, to make such a claim, on the surface it sounds loving. It sounds humble. It sounds very tolerant. But upon close examination, it is a very arrogant, exclusive position. I don’t think Oprah, or anyone else who makes these claims, thinks of it in this manner. When you think about it, it lends itself to arrogance and to intolerance because this person has to have a God’s eye-view, a transcendent view. This person has to know all the ins and outs of all the major religions of the world in order to know that all of them are equally true or mystically one at their core and that all of them equally reach God, whoever this person defines “God” to be.
And so what Oprah and many other people teach is that they want to take all the religions of the world—let’s take Buddhism, let’s take Islam, let’s take Christianity, let’s take Hinduism, let’s take Zoroastrianism, let’s take all these faiths and put them into a blender and put some milk in there and some protein powder and Men are from Mars, and Women are from Venus; put all of them in a blender and go zzzzzzz, and then you have this nice, New Age power shake, which basically says, “Everybody is right, anything goes, it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you sincerely believe it,” which I don’t even have time to critique and get into that particular statement.
Oprah and others, which would be roughly 80% of Americans, believe this. What they do is they take Judaism, they take Christianity, they take Buddhism and Hinduism, other major world religions, and they pour over the top of all these religions, an Easternized or New Age layer. So someone who makes this claim is not including all other religions; they are excluding everybody who doesn’t believe in their particular view of God and how to get to Him.
And anyone who is serious about their faith, whether they are a Buddhist, or a Hindu, or Jew, or a Christian should be highly offended by that. In effect, you are taking someone’s precious beliefs and putting them in a blender with all this stuff and just grinding away anything that is supposedly offensive, to make them into what you want them to be. And again, I don’t think Oprah has some grand plan or that she is consciously trying to do that. I genuinely believe she is trying to be all-inclusive, but in doing that, when you ask a few questions, you will see that she recreates the very thing she is critiquing. She says, “I know one thing for sure: there is more than one way.”
She is critiquing the intolerance, supposedly, in Christianity or Islam or other faiths. But in critiquing that, by making her claim that she knows for sure that all religion leads to God, then she is being just as exclusive and just as intolerant. That’s one way to see this particular belief, which I think is universal. I’ve had this conversation with many people.
And this brings us to the second way. You can kind of get into this. The second way would be what I call, The Pregnancy Test. For example, let’s say that tomorrow morning my wife and I got up real early and somehow magically, mysteriously a babysitter appeared to watch our two kids and take them to school. Suppose all that happened. And we are walking around Memorial Park together, holding hands, and all of a sudden someone sees my wife and comes up and says, “Hey, Elliott. Are you pregnant?” And she says, “Yes.” And then let’s say we walk another ten yards and someone else comes up to her and says, “Hey, Elliott, how are you doing? Are you pregnant?” And she says, “No.” So I would say, “What do you mean? Sweetheart, you can’t be pregnant and not pregnant at the same time.” That is what is known as a contradiction.
It’s important to understand this basic law. In philosophy, it is called the law of non-contradiction. In other words, A cannot equal non-A, meaning you cannot be “A pregnant” and “non-A you are not pregnant” at the same time. That is illogical. That is a contradiction. And this particular view that all paths lead to God at the Summit, ignores blatant contradictions between the diverse religions.
Every major world religion makes truth claims about ultimate reality, about the nature and origin of man, about what happens to man after he or she dies, and about how someone can be saved or enlightened. Every religion makes these claims. So, everyone cannot be right because these religions contradict each other on so many points.
For example, Hindus say there are millions and millions of gods. Muslims say there is only one God. Well, you can’t have it both ways. This is not Burger King in the 80’s. One view is right, and one view is wrong. Buddhists say that ultimate reality is basically impersonal. Christians say that ultimate reality is personal. They both can’t be right. These are contradictions. Jews do not believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God. Christians believe He is the Messiah, Son of God. Muslims worship Allah. He is one god. We worship one God, yet He is a Triune God—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
Eastern religions, in general, have a cyclical view of history. They believe in reincarnation. Western religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam—have a linear view of history. There are contradictions right there. So, when you think about it, when someone makes this claim, which is a very over-generalized claim, that there are diverse paths and they all lead to God, just ask a few questions. Just take the pregnancy test and look at these blatant contradictions, and you will discover that that ends up becoming a nonsensical, illogical statement, just like someone is saying: “I’m pregnant and I’m not pregnant.”
So I think it is very important that we, as Christians, know how to critique and understand someone’s worldview, especially this one, because it is so prevalent. It is just so accepted uncritically, and it just seems so warm and gracious and PC, but when you ask a few questions, you see they are also making an exclusive claim. They are also making an absolute illogical statement. It violates the law of non-contradiction, because all these religions make all these different claims.
Now, what does the Bible say about this? What does the Bible say about this view, about all paths leading to God? John Chapter 3, Verse 16 says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” In John Chapter 14, Verse 6, Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
It is very important that you understand that Christianity is a revealed religion. The Christian Gospel is not man groping for God, but God coming down to communicate to man. The Christian Gospel is God’s path to man, not man’s path to God. So, if God did pave a road, a path for us to know Him—He initiated it—then it would be, in my opinion, the ultimate arrogance, the epitome of arrogance, to reject God’s one-path to Him, and to say, “Well, God, your one path is just as good as these manmade paths”; that is the hidden assumption in this particular worldview that all diverse paths ultimately wind up with God. They are assuming that basically all religions are manmade. It’s man trying to struggle and get his way to God, rather than God coming down to man.
Christianity has always been a revealed religion. It is a revelation—the revelation of God. It is not a manmade religion. So it is important that we defend the Christian truth in that way. And you say, “Well, what is the justification for our belief?” It is because we believe God is there and this God is not silent, this God has spoken to us in His Holy Scripture. And this God has intervened in history and in our lives through the person of Jesus Christ. And He says He is the way, the truth, and the life. He has built a bridge. He has built a road, a path from heaven to earth. And when He died on the cross, He said, “It is finished.” What’s finished? The road, the path from God to man, so we can be forgiven and cleansed and so that we can know Him as our Father. Our faith is a faith of revelation. God has revealed Himself to mankind.
Now, my prayer for Oprah and for many of you here tonight, would be that you get on God’s path. And it is my prayer that God, by His Spirit, would put you on His path. I would pray that Oprah would go back to the roots of her faith at that church in Nashville, and she would go back to the simplicity of loving Jesus as He reveals Himself in Scripture.
My prayer for others of you here tonight and for myself as well is that all of us here would learn how to defend our faith, that we would learn how to critique and understand the worldviews that are being presented to us in our culture. First Peter Chapter 3, Verse 15 says, “Always be ready to give the reason for the hope you have.” Are you ready? Are you ready, with humility and sincerity and boldness, to give a reason for the hope, the confidence that God has placed inside of you through Jesus Christ? Are you ready?
It is my prayer that this series, as we look at these different cultural icons and their gospels, that we will be able to defend and articulate our faith in a winsome and intelligent and compelling way.
If you are here tonight and you want life, if you are here tonight and you want truth, if you are here tonight and you want to get on a path, God’s path, His invitation is open to you. I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I am trying to get someplace I get lost. And I want to know the path to get to my destination. If God is your destination, to know Him, to grow with Him, and to walk with Him, let me tell you this: He is searching and seeking you out, and He has revealed Himself to you through the person of Jesus Christ, and through Holy Scripture, and He offers to you tonight grace and truth and a relationship with Him.
[Ben leads in a closing prayer.]