Love her or hate her, talk-show host Oprah Winfrey is undeniably a force in American culture and across the world. Her syndicated TV show, magazine, Web sites, book club, charities and more draw the dollars and attention of millions.

A strong spiritual current runs through Oprah’s empire, and that is the subject of religion writer Marcia Z. Nelson’s smart new book, The Gospel According to Oprah.

Barely 100 pages, this terrifically engaging yet easy read puts forth “ten reasons why Oprah is a compelling and successful spiritual teacher in spiritually eclectic and ever-practical America.”

Nelson’s reasons are as follows:

  1. Oprah is very human.
  2. Oprah acknowledges the reality of suffering and wants to do something to relieve it.
  3. Oprah provides community.
  4. Oprah encourages self-examination.
  5. Oprah teaches gratitude.
  6. Oprah is easy to understand.
  7. Oprah listens.
  8. Oprah teaches generosity by highlighting and encouraging role models.
  9. Oprah explores forgiveness, and tries to demonstrate that it is possible and how it is possible.
  10. Oprah is a reminder service: a reminder of what is good, what is important, what one person can do.

Nelson examines each of these reasons in brief chapters, quoting theologians, sociologists and media professionals and, significantly, referring to her own experience of Oprah immersion: watching the show, reading the magazine, joining an online Oprah community and more.

Nelson acknowledges Oprah’s spiritual roots in African-American tradition and asserts ways in which one of our wealthiest “entertainers” melds that tradition with a pluralistic and televisual culture.

Along the way, Oprah is not spared her various criticisms: that her kingdom pushes products; that the upshot of her style emphasizes personal psychology over larger social transformation; that her generosity is a business tactic.

But it all comes back to power, and Oprah has it, with a show that began 20 years ago and has proved its staying power by taking on everything from weight loss and sexual abuse to Africa’s AIDS crisis and good housekeeping. It also features its fair share of celebrity interviews, with Nelson noting that the number of celebrities on the show doubled between the 2003 and 2004 seasons.

Threaded throughout Nelson’s analysis, of course, is Oprah’s spiritual impact.

“An hour-long show five days a week adds up to a lot more pulpit time per week than the average pastor enjoys,” writes Nelson, “and Oprah commands a lot bigger congregation.” Nelson repeatedly examines how Oprah is not necessarily a pastor, but ways in which she performs pastoral duties like listening.

Nelson neatly lays out how Oprah keeps spiritual affairs in front of her audience—whether its making a season’s theme “Remember Your Spirit” or simply talking consistently through the years about values—or virtues—like forgiveness.

Nelson avoids cheap diagnosis and instead invites complexity, even while maintaining a welcoming style—a true feat. This installment of Westminster-John Knox Press’ The Gospel According to … series is without a doubt one of the best.

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for

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