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June 8, 2011

"Mark Oppenheimer, Oprah Winfrey is Not a Cult Leader!"

I read the article of Mark Oppenheimer titled, "The Church of Oprah Winfrey and a Theology of Suffering," published by New York Times May 27, 2011 with shock, dismay, disgust, and great disappointment. The article is filled with misinformation, mischaracterization, and misconception about Oprah which I strongly resent. I felt I was reading about another Oprah from another planet. Oprah has no other gospel. She is a Christian brought up in a Christian home. She even said Jesus is cool! Oprah’s position about some Christian doctrines may differ from the traditional gospel interpretations. And I disagree with some of them myself. Does that classify her on the same level as David Koresh and Jimmie Jones? I always believe a staff writer for a reputable national newspaper such as the New York Times will have a high standard of journalism than stepping down to the lower level of tabloid, voyeuristic, and attack journalism. That is what this article about Oprah Winfrey represents. It did not give her credits for all the wonderful things she had achieved and the many people she had helped over those many years she had been doing her talk show. You do not have to like somebody to give that person credits for his or her merits. I believe Ms. Oprah Winfrey deserves higher credits for her achievements than the tabloid journalism presented in the article of Mark Oppenheimer - - yikes - - disgusting!

Out of the 25 years Ms. Winfrey ran her show, the least she could receive is "thank you" from society who benefited so much from her achievements, and not condemnation. I have lived enough to know that people who tend to do good for society are often criticized and sometimes hated by a small group of people who lack appreciation. When Jesus opened the eye of the blind, and restored a withered hand in the temple, the Pharisees could not appreciate his compassion for the suffering men. They were blinded to the significance of the miracles because of their prejudices. Instead of appreciating what Jesus did, they accused him of breaking the Sabbath day law. I’m sure some Christians are concerned about the theology of Oprah in reference to the New Age. Perhaps they would be more comforted to know that in Oprah’s last show, she raised up her face and thank God Almighty who has crowned her endeavors with much success!

Theological disagreement is as old as the Bible itself. From the beginning, people have been mixing the worship of God with the worship of other gods. Early Christians mixed Christianity with the worship of other gods, and Paul had to address the issue during his missionary journey in Ephesus leading to a riot. In the past fifty years, people started separating pure Christianity from other religions. Today there are countries where people still worship and place the Catholic statues of saints at the shrine of other gods. I’m not advocating or condoning such practices in Christianity. However, the gospel disagreements between Christians and the New Age followers is no different from the gospel disagreements between regular Christians and Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Islam, Catholics, and other Christian denominations. Who has all the right answers except the Holy Spirit? This is not to playing down the integrity of the Gospel message of Christ, but people are not called to condemn others because of gospel errors. Jesus said, "The Holy Spirit will lead you to all truth" (St. John 16:13). If people refuse to read their Bible, why blame the preacher who makes a gospel error in his message?

When Peter was about to lead Jesus’ disciples astray going back to their fishing profession, Jesus came to correct and redirect Peter in a kind and loving way by saying, "Peter, do you love me?" (St. John 21:16). After Jesus asked that question three times, Peter got the message. When Saul was persecuting Christians, Jesus appeared to him on the way to Damascus and said, "Saul, why are you persecuting me?" (Acts 9:4). When a woman who was caught in adultery was brought to Jesus, did Jesus tell them to stone her for justice? Were they about to do justice when the man she had the affair with was excluded for the vigilante verdict about to be delivered to the woman? Jesus response was to ask the people to search the purpose of their verdict and the intended punishment. The same people who are ready to thrown big stones at people are the same ones who live in glassy homes. If we want to speak for Jesus, we must learn the secret of his mission that is based on compassion for humanity not persecution and condemnation. Mark Oppenheimer’s article about Oprah has no merit! It was an attack article that was unjustified! Thanks to God, a better and more merciful assessment was written by Alessandra Stanley about Oprah from the same New York Times titled, "Television Diva Gives Thanks and Signs Off," May 25, 2011.

Let us set something straight about journalism. Tabloid journalism is voyeurism. The review of Oprah’s life achievements deserve far more than the characterization of Mark Oppenheimer. The first few things I learn in college about journalism is to cover a story and not be a part of that story while at the same time be objective, and keep emotions out of the report. This was what many of the professors helped us to learn by asking us to write different reports called "critique." It is a training process to help a student demonstrates his ability to look at both sides of the issue, report facts, and arrive at a conclusion. The conclusion of the report leads to assessment, not judgment. The last section of the paper is the opinion of the writer, and should be identified as such and not reported as facts. Mark Oppenheimer’s article about Oprah is the personification of bad journalism. Belittling a person’s great achievements to feed the desires of those who dislike her is unconscionable, self-serving, and irresponsible journalism. There is serious danger in this type of attack journalism. The rise of talking heads in the media today has created the polarization between the so-called liberal and conservative media. The deception that the so-called conservative media is the right way and everybody else is wrong destroys the value of true journalism. Reporting news is reporting facts. There is nothing liberal or conservative in reporting facts, except to twist the news to serve our club members’ position creating a bias in itself with skewed position in the report. There is nothing called conservative or liberal media, we invented such terms to feel comfortable about our own prejudices and biases in reporting the news. We also feel good when we read about people we do not like being bashed by the media to reinforce our own personal prejudices about the people. A good person does not drift towards conservative media, as we may want to believe. A good person searches for fairness and objectivity in news report. A person in search for the so-called conservative news is a person in a quest to reinforce personal bias about other people or situations.

If the U.S. is the standard for free press and true journalism, we must retain the virtues and integrity of news report, and not degenerate our reports into attacking people we do not like. Other developing countries are looking at the Western countries as the standard of free press. The center of political explosions all over the Middle East in 2011 is the quest for free press in a democratic society. This type of attack article on Oprah placed on the Internet violates ethics in journalism and makes such freedom of press we enjoy so much, and sometimes take for granted more difficult for other countries to attain. The beauty of freedom is to learn to exercise personal restraints, responsibility and integrity.

Mr. Mark Oppenheimer mischaracterized the objectives of what he referred to as "The Theology of Suffering." Oprah and other people who talked about suffering as a way to help people heal from past painful experiences are not glamorizing suffering. What Oprah was trying to achieve was to allow people to get in touch with their painful past and bring them to the healing ground. That idea is not new, professional psychotherapists do that all the time. However, despite a person has been brought to the present, it does not remove the pain of the past being brought back by continuous flashbacks. To remove emotional pain out of the flashback, a person who had experienced such a painful past has to accept the past as it was instead of being in denial of the events. Painful flashbacks are interwoven with denial of the events of the past. As long as the person is in denial, the painful events of the past continue to hold the person in emotional bondage including the fear of the perpetrator. After interviewing many women who have been sexually abused, one of the issues still haunting them for years is that time during the abuse they accidentally achieved orgasm. Many of them got very angry with themselves not realizing the differences between the physiological response of the body and the situation of the abuse. For many years, they carried this guilt that their body betrayed them leading some of them to suffer from self-mutilation, anorexia and bulimia. Instead of dealing with the issue and understanding the spontaneous reactions of the body to a physical stimulation, they remain in denial. While in denial, the experience holds them in emotional bondage. Accepting the physiological responses of the body to stimulation and understanding the role of the abuse ignites the beginning of the healing process by removing the guilt.

Similarly, a person who went through oppression, abuse, and suffering has to accept what had happened in the past instead of being in denial, or fighting it. It is a different ball game if the person is still in the abusive situation when the focus should be to get out of that relationship or situation. The origin of racial prejudice, hate, injustice, and abuses, is rooted in unresolved suffering of the perpetrator. The abuser is lashing out due to the past experiences of humiliation. The beginning process of healing is to dis-empower the perpetrator by admitting to the painful suffering, and designing strategy of healing, by not allowing the past event to contaminate the future, or hold the person as a hostage. It is not a way to glamorize suffering, but to prevent the past from keeping a person in emotional prison for life over the events that happened ages ago. Therefore the reason why Black preachers in those days preached about suffering was not because they were glamorizing suffering, but a way of survival while being oppressed and were totally powerless. During those days, they sang many Negro Spirituals like, Same Train Carry Everybody; Steal Away to Jesus; Every time I feel the Spirit Moving in my Heart, I will Pray; One Day I will See a Fertile Land Where Justice Prevails; Give me That Old Time Religion; Walking to Jerusalem Just Like John. These songs and others, including their trust in the Lord, helped to sustain them during very difficult times of abuse when they were powerless. Today those songs have almost vanished from Black churches because they reminded them of the painful times of their parents. But the same songs had great sustaining power during those difficult and painful days. Like the old Negro poem, I walked many miles in torn shoes and clothes, and with empty stomach in agonizing pain. I was in denial of who I was. Despite, I just hold on to life, just holding on. My survival depended on my resilience. But one day, Jesus came and set me free." If you have never walked in somebody’s shoes, you do not have the right to speak for that person.

Although psychotherapy helps, the key to true healing is embedded in the Spirit of God. This is why Jesus says, "Abide in me" (St. John 15:4). Many people, and even Christians do not walk in the Spirit of God. They spend more time in the flesh thereby forcing a therapist to place the target of emotional wounds primarily in the flesh. The best place for emotional healing is in the Spirit realm of God. People who have experienced spiritual healing understand the advantage of such healing compared to emotional therapy. Emotional healing in the Spirit of God leaves no emotional scar while healing in the flesh always leave emotional scars.

I greatly admire Oprah Winfrey for what she had achieved. As a Deacon in a Baptist church, I have some gospel disagreements with her. However, those disagreements do not rise to the level of calling her a cult leader. Such a characterization of Oprah is insulting very unprofessional, and irresponsible. Okay, she embraced the New Age philosophy, I don’t. I do not believe in the New Age. Should that remove all the wonderful things she had done for people? The homeless she fed. The people she paid for their college tuitions. The gifts she gave out to those in need. The cars she gave out during her shows. The children of prisoners she cared for. The poor she had helped. The different organizations she had sponsored. The schools she built. Families living in the streets that she restored back to their homes. And many more people Oprah had made millionaires. The list continues. Many times I tried to get on her show to give a couple of my books more publicity. I tried for almost twenty years; I did not get on her show. I am not angry with her. I just believed those screening and selecting her show topics missed me. Should I get angry with her for that? Absolutely not. I still love my Sister! One thing I have that all those people on her show do not have is the only picture I know of Oprah with a hat was taken with me in Chicago. She was so pretty in that picture. At least I can brag about something with Oprah.

The appropriate way to handle gospel disagreement is not the way of politics. Any time some people disagree with another person in politics, they start to call the person names in order to shame that person. In Christianity, we have started doing the same thing which is very bad. I have listened to many testimonies. I have never heard anybody who came to Christ because they were beaten into submission. We can only preach the message; only the Holy Spirit of God changes the heart of people. We are not Holy Ghost junior. When we disagree with someone, we should have a forum for discussion, not name-calling. The forum is for the exchange of ideas. There are Christian preachers who do not believe in resurrection, or in Jesus coming back, or in hell. Should we call these preachers cult leaders? Because I disagree with Oprah about her New Age philosophy does not mean I have to hate her and dismiss all of her achievements. Even after such discussion regarding disagreements, we can always agree to disagree without bitterness.

I strongly believe that Oprah’s success had ignited great jealousy among people who love to hate her. I do not agree with some of her theology, I also address this issue in a kind way in chapter #40 of my book Closer Walk With Jesus, as the Holy Spirit directed me. Let’s be real. She is successful and rich! I bet that makes them even angrier! Go on Sister! Their negative characterization of Oprah exposes more about their own life’s discontent than about Oprah. When people are in pain, they spill out their venoms at others like wounded snakes. There are many talking heads across the nation who are spreading poison and propaganda journalism. Yet, Mark did not write about those ones and their disruptive influences. But he has the audacity to defame a philanthropist! The sad part of this article written by Mark Oppenheimer is the message being sent to other successful people who may want to share their success with society like Oprah has done. Will these people be motivated to do the same thing seeing the way Oprah has been treated by a reputable nation newspaper such as the New York Times? The article has no merit, except for people in emotional pain who are jealous of Oprah because of their own personal failures. She has been the symbol of a giant financial success in the nation many people have benefited from and even those who have taken advantage of her success. There are many of those. Yet, Oprah never complained, even when people use her name for their personal projects. She just opened her heart to love people regardless to their color, race, and ethnicity. The only problem with Oprah that ignited these attacks is because she has a big heart and especially a heart of compassion for others. I met Oprah in Chicago and sat next to her, had a brief conversation, she just looked at me and smiled – that’s when we took the picture together at a breakfast. There are people in this world who love to hate anybody with a heart of compassion. She is a good role model for women of any color, to rise from adversity to a giant glory especially for both White and Black women. I’m sure history will never forget her positive contributions to our society. Oprah, Well-done beloved! Love you!

Yinka Vidal, author, Closer Walk With Jesus.