SNAKE OIL: Oprah, Rob Bell, And Phony Self-Empowerment For The Self-Centered

Published on April 7, 2014

Oprah Winfrey has long been the leader in American guru aggregation, rounding up doctors, psychologists, planners, soothsayers, do-gooders, pastors, rabbis, and emotive specialists from all corners of life. Yet amidst the seeming diversity and specialization, the overall themes are rather predictable.

Look inside yourself. Be yourself. Improve yourself. Launch yourself. Love yourself.

And love others, too, I suppose.

Yet lo and behold, Oprah’s Big-Tent Self-Helpism is about to expand its posts once again. This fall, Oprah will rally a handful of preferred prophets and “tastemakers” to embark on an eight-city weekend tour, “The Life You Want,” a celebration aptly titled for the self-obsessed.

Though a tour of this variety is a first for Enterprise Oprah, and despite the booming promise of the promotional trailer — “Oprah like you’ve never seen, heard, or experienced!” — the aim and agenda are rather routine as far as upper-middle-class heart-tingling goes. All the way down to the $99–$999 price tag.

The tour will push themes of “empowerment, resilience, and authenticity,” we are told. Oprah will share her inspiring rise from poverty to media glory, followed by a series of talks by “hand-picked thought leaders” such as “spiritual teacher” Iyanla Vanzant, mind-body wizard Deepak Chopra, pastor-turned-surf-churcher Rob Bell, and all-around me-seeker Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love. “The goal is to live the fullest, highest expression of yourself as a human being,” Oprah declares.

Swoon. Tingle. Tear. Repeat.

Not Your Grandmother’s Alcoholics Anonymous

As awe-inspiring as that may be, in observing the hype and grandeur of the thing, gloomier folk such as myself are prone to spot something deeper in all the “deepness,” a sticky surprise of sorts beneath the proverbial Oprah-theater seat.

This is not your Grandmother’s Alcoholics Anonymous, wherein human depravity is pressed to come clean, and in its frailty, humility, and desperation, submitting itself to a higher power and reaching beyond its earthbound limits. This is not about “love” as selfless, unconditional devotion to the other, tied to transcendent commitments and cultivated through relationships not of its own design. This is not, as the One True Guru might say, the last shall be first.

This is cultural consumerism at both its highest and lowest — humanistic in its instincts, privileged in its priorities, and carefully glazed with all the right marketing to deceive itself that justice is at hand and Neighbor Love has the wheel. It’s as if human desire has grown so weary of natural constraints and so content with its own appetite that it would prefer to label self-indulgence as “self-help” and be done with it.

It’s faux-self-empowerment for the self-centered, heart-religion as a mantle for hedonism.

Read more: The Federalist