Tuned In

The Gospel According to Oprah

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Bruce Glikas / FilmMagic

“I’m talking about the same [god] you talk about. I’m talking about the Alpha and Omega. The omniscient, the omnipresent, the ultimate consciousness, the source, the force, the all of everything there is, the one and only G-O-D.”

Just to be clear, Oprah Winfrey was actually talking there about the One God of monotheistic religion, not herself. It is an old and easy joke, I know, to say that The Oprah Winfrey Show was like a religion, but there was some truth to it. If Oprah’s show was never an out-and-out faith, it did have the tone, precepts and attitude of one.

And Wednesday, the woman who shaped and changed millions of lives through TV closed her show with an overtly spiritual message. In the process, she told her audience that they were the rock on whom she would found her church and the one who would spread her message forth, while she completed her work and was assumed bodily to Heaven. Or at least to basic cable.

The final episode was a far quieter and more intimate affair than the two-part extravaganza at the United Center: no celebrities, no concerts, no prize giveaways. But it was also more affecting and engaging, if not entertaining in the showbiz sense. Watching her last hour, I realized the problem with the celebrity goodbye special: there wasn’t enough Oprah in it.

That is, it gave us lots of stars praising Oprah, and Oprah reacting, but there was very little of her voice. Ultimately The Oprah Winfrey Show was not about the guests; it was about her, and you, and the feeling of the space between the two closing. And whether you found her final spiritual meditations to her audience profound or hokey, they were above all proof again of what a fantastic broadcaster she is.

For one thing: it’s easy for an occasional viewer of Oprah—someone who knows James Frey and the teary, confessional, dramatic episodes—to forget how casually funny she can be. But that’s what she was when she led off, remembering her early days in broadcasting, and self-deprecatingly narrating over footage of her first show, braving her nerves with “no hair and makeup team, just a Jheri Curl and a bad fur coat.”

From there, she turned to her audience, and how they should carry on without her. Oprah says she likes to consider herself a teacher—”This, my friends, will be our last class from this stage”—but her talk had the unmistakable cadences of a sermon and the inversions of a religious orator: “[I saw] myself in you, and you in me.” Like a prophet telling her disciples how to carry on, she emphasized that every viewer of hers has a platform, that their own lives are their talk shows and that they each should “know what sparks the light in you, so that you in your own way can illuminate the world.”

It’s the sort of pronouncement that makes it easy for cynics like me to snark about Oprah—and I have!—but it must be said: at least here was a mammoth TV celebrity who for 25 years did a show that was mostly about telling people to be better to one another and themselves. She may have dabbled in sensationalism and given a platform to hokum like The Secret, but she also went into mainstream living rooms to raise awareness about abuse, encourage altruism and foster tolerance.

And she did it all with the constant reassurance that her viewers were good people, that they could believe in themselves and that they had the power to make good things happen. “There is a difference,” she said Wednesday, “between thinking you deserve to be happy and knowing that you are worthy of happiness.”

Do I know what that means? Hell no! Not a clue! But it’s a beautifully turned line, and I can see the appeal of parsing out the difference between “deserving” and “worthy” and trying to apply that to one’s own life. It’s same the kind of philosophical puzzle-work that religion offers.

Sure, you can argue with the various ways she delivered that message—all that talk about “blocking our own blessings because we don’t feel inherently good enough” and so on. But what made Oprah such a phenomenal and deeply loved vessel for that message is that she always emphasized that she wasn’t just handing down answers from a mountain—she was figuring out all this stuff in her own life.

And if many aspects of her life now are easier than the average non-billionaire’s, she came to it by starting from nothing. For years, her show has been not just been a conversation with the audience but a conversation backward in time, with the troubled girl that Oprah had been. “I am truly amazed,” she reflected, “that I, who started out in rural Mississippi in 1954, when the vision for a black girl was limited to either being a maid or a teacher in a segregated school could end up here. It is no coincidence that a lonely little girl”—and here she started crying:

who felt not a lot of love, even though my parents and grandparents did the best they could, it is no coincidence that I grew up to feel the genuine kindness, affection, trust and validation from millions of you all over the world. From you whose names I will never know, I learned what love is. You, and this show, have been the great love of my life. [Ed. note: Sorry, Stedman.]

And right there you have what made Oprah far more than just another good talk show host. It was as if she were saying: I haven’t finished with The Oprah Winfrey Show: You have. The sermon is ended; go forth and spread the word of Oprah.