Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call them to give up a condition that requires illusions.
There were three great German philosophers that specialized in what might be called a hermeneutic of suspicion. As their work became popular, the views became more prevalent, but we must credit these three as the founders of a deep philosophical stance of suspicion toward any authority of power. They were Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche. The above quote is from Marx, though you may be more familiar with the abridged version—religion is the opiate of the masses—than the longhand one above, but the idea remains the same: religion is a form of crowd control. It dulls the people to keep them in check. It is nothing more than an illusion and that illusion must be broken for them to obtain true happiness.
Marx is brilliant, wrong, but brilliant. The reason I point this out is because for most religions I think he is right. I think most religions, from the eastern spiritualities to Islam are both avenues for oppression and imbedded with exhortations to obedience and hope that subjugates its adherents. Marx, as a German though, probably had Christianity in his sights. This is where I think he fails, that is in so far as the Christian religion is actually practiced in Spirit and in truth. This disclaimer is important. It is one thing to say that Marx is out and out wrong, but it is another to point out that is some ways we have made Marx right when we deviate from the roots of historic Christianity. No one shows this better than the priestess of modern spirituality Oprah Winfrey.
Allow me to make a few observations about Oprah’s comments here.
What Are Belief and Faith?
Is there a difference for you between faith and belief?
Oprah answers yes, color me skeptical, because you cannot go through this life without beliefs. So far, so good. Faith, however, is about knowing “no matter what you are going to be okay.” To give her some grace on the matter, she is answering these questions on the fly in front of a studio audience to be televised later. So her answers might not be as robust as she would actually assent to given more time. But notice two things, the subject and the content of Oprah’s definition of faith.
- Subject – “No matter what I am going to be okay.”
The subject of faith is “I” or “me,” the first person singular pronoun. Now, for the sake of argument let’s consider a notion I call simple faith. As a seminary graduate, if you asked me about my faith I could give a vast number of various articulations of the gospel, creeds, or theological statements. Those can tend to be more complex, but simple faith is what lies at the core of all of those. When I speak to youth about this I describe it as a tweet confession—what would be your theological confession of faith in 140 characters or less. For the believer, there are two major instances where a tweet sized confession articulates the core of simple faith.
And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” (Mark 8:29 ESV)
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:40-43 ESV)
I didn’t count the characters but I am pretty sure both of these would fit in a tweet (140 character limit). Notice the subject of their confessions, the key of their faith. Peter says, “You are the Christ.” His subject is Jesus. The thief on the cross who repents has the same subject of faith, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
- Content – “No matter what I am going to be okay.”
The content of Oprah’s idea of faith is two-part. First, that everything is going to be okay. Some people may find that encouraging, even up lifting. I, on the other hand, find it odd and far too vague to give me any meaning. What do you mean by ‘okay.’ Quite honestly I want to be more than ‘okay.’ I want to flourish. Furthermore, the idea of ‘going to be.’ When am I going to be okay and will the ‘okay’ be enough to make up for whatever comes before it? The second aspect is the ‘No matter what.’ What is my guarantee? It seems to me that the implication, the reason for saying ‘no matter what,’ is that there will be things that jeopardize whether or not we will be okay. So if it is in jeopardy, what is my guarantee? How do we know we are going to be okay?
Again, the Christian faith has an answer where Oprah does not. To return to the confessions above. The content of them is the kingship of Jesus. But this is not some mere earthly kingship. This is a cosmic, eternal, this life and the next kingship. I know everything will be better than okay because I have confessed Jesus as king, and he has promised a kingdom that will have no end, where there will be no pain or tears of loss and suffering, but eternal joy. There will be, in this life, difficulties, but they will be made small in the freedom and beauty of eternity.
Oprah used to preach the gospel, or a gospel, false or true I do not know. But she is definitely far from the Christian message now. The question becomes, how did she get there, what is her source. The answer is best described in her hermeneutic, which is displayed through her brief exposition of Psalm 37:4
Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4 ESV)
Here is exactly what she says, concerning this psalm:
Oprah: I love the word delight, don’t you. I am so glad that David knew it.
Stephen: Oh David was into delighting himself.
Oprah: [quotes verse]. Now what that says to me: LORD has a wide range, what is LORD? Compassion, love, forgiveness, kindness. So you delight yourself in those virtues where the character of the LORD is revealed. Delight thy self in goodness. Delight thy self in love, kindness, and compassion and you will receive the desires of your heart.
Oprah: It says to me if you focus on being a force for good, then goodness will come. Which is also the third law of motion, which is also karma, which is also the golden rule.
Let me point out three things
- The LORD: “LORD has a wide range.”Put briefly, no it doesn’t. The LORD is very specific. The LORD is the covenant name of God—Yahweh. It means something very specific. Delight yourself in the God who makes and keeps covenants, who allows for the atoning of sin, who seeks us that we might know him, you initiates relationships with his chosen people, who loved when he was hated and made away for his enemies to become family. That is what LORD means. More accurately that is who LORD is. LORD was a very specific referent, not a wide range.
- The Character of the LORD: “Delight thy self in love, kindness, compassion. Curiously absent is jealous or wrath, vengeance or justice:
The Lord will not be willing to forgive him, but rather the anger of the Lord and his jealousy will smoke against that man, and the curses written in this book will settle upon him, and the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven. (Deuteronomy 29:20)
Where is the reference to delighting yourself in these attributes of God? I imagine Oprah has some answer to this question, but the fact of the matter is that God in his beauty is a simple being, meaning that he cannot be divided into parts. This is true of his character as well, so where God’s love is, there his wrath and hatred are too. Where his wrath is, there his love and compassion is too. Just think of the cross, Jesus receives wrath, condemnation, judgement while we receive love, compassion, forgiveness. God’s character is fully present in every act.
- Equating: “Which is also the third law of motion, which is also karma, which is also the golden rule.”Again, no. These are not the same thing. Okay, in all honesty I am not sure what the “third law of motion” is, but neither does Wikipedia. So best I can figure is that she either means the third law of planetary motion, but that doesn’t really make sense (The square of the orbital period of a planet is proportional to the cube of the semi-major axis of its orbit). Or she means the third law of thermodynamics, but I am not sure what she means here either. So let’s leave this alone. She is comparing all of these three things to the message of Pslam 37:4, the problem is that Psalm 37:4 does not say any of these things, and if it did it would contradict the rest of the message of the Bible. In brief, the message of the Bible is the gospel of Jesus, summed up in Ephesians 2:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:1-10 ESV)
Essentially, we were bad, but God is rich in mercy made a way (at great cost to himself) for him to count us as good. We were dead and God made a way to make us alive. And this all was done by “the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” That is the exact opposite of karma (do good and get good in return).
Oprah misses the boat entirely, she misses the dock, the port, and the ocean as well. She missed the entire thing if she thinks that any of this is valid and true. All she has at the end of the day—theologically speaking—is moralistic, therapeutic deism. That is, a god who is distant and often uninvolved (deism), but he will make sure we get what we need to feel good and happy (therapeutic) as long as we are good (moralistic). If this is true, then Marx is right. But MTD is not Christianity, it is a different religion entirely. Christianity is not moralistic, but gracious. Christianity is not therapeutic, but sanctifying and often arduous—requiring the putting off of immediate gratification and the slaying of our personal desires so that we receive something better when we pursue that which God desires for us. Christianity does not speak of a distant God, but a God so close that he clothed himself in flesh that he might call us to him. Christianity is not the opiate of the masses—moralistic, therapeutic deism is.
Thanks for reading,