Mutual of Oprah’s Wild Kingdom and the Limits of the Buffered Self

Mutual of Oprah’s Wild Kingdom

I’ve watched some of Oprah’s miniseries.

  • The production values are very high. The presentation is beautiful and winsome.
  • Care is clearly taken to allow the diverse religions and spiritualities to have their own voice
  • The stories are powerfully told

The most interesting thing for me to watch, however, is the chair we are invited to sit down with her created by the presentation. My best analogy so far for it is the show I faithfully watched as a child as we broke our Sabbath TV fast after church on Sunday nights. Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Every Sunday night I got a tour of this animal and that, and every now and then Jim  would leave the confines of civilization, get down into the habitat with the animals and something might happen. The viewers, of course, watched from the safety of our living rooms.

In some ways Oprah is our Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler rolled up into one and the religious diversity of humanity is the Wild Kingdom.

What You Have to Implicitly Believe to Make the Show Work

In the second episode we follow a highly observant Jewish woman take the steps into marriage. The “soul mate” language ties us to her, but very quickly you can see the application of the “soul mate” language take very counter-cultural and serious turns. The telling of the story is respectful and beautiful, there is no criticism even in the natural surprises shared by the story, yet the assumption of the position in which the viewer sits clearly is outside the world of the engaged couple. We are invited to look in, share, be silent in whatever judgments or critique we might form yet implicitly moved to attempt to appropriate what we might from this particular niche in the world’s religious ecosystem to perhaps find something that might move or inspire us in our own contexts. This movement and the skill by which Oprah leads us through it is her genius and the genius of her program.

Like Jim and Marlin, however, what we must be in possession of behind the camera are the instruments of contemporary cultural technology. We can only peer into the world of this Jewish couple from the safe vantage point (Charles Taylor’s buffered self) helicopters, hotels, air travel, camera technology and weapons. The Jewish couple are not simply going all of this because they want to, though on the whole that is likely their decision. They are fulfilling the law of HaShem. HaShem is of course more than capable of bringing blessings or curses as Deuteronomy stipulates. The couple is fully engaged in a theological world with historical consequences. We peer in to appreciate the emotional experience, looking to perhaps invisibly lift a practice of language to bedazzle our emotional homes. We do so as a conscientious photographic Safari hunter, taking pictures to be framed and mounted in our halls yet not even leaving a footprint on the soft savanna.

This picture glass works only one way, as I learned as a boy of my black and white TV set. We are buffered from what the camera presents to us. The God of the Jewish wedding in the minds of the celebrants could and should reach back through the camera and speak judgment on our courtship practices or lack of them. We have no fear of this god. We just want to enjoy the music and wish “mazel tov” to the flat screen.

3 Kinds of Belief

In a really sharp watching of this series via an Orthodox church website we are made aware of three different usages of the world “belief”.

The change in the meaning and use of the word belief was first highlighted by Wilfred Cantwell Smith—from whom I presume Bass borrows this idea—in the late 1970s.

As he says in Believing: An Historical Perspective, belief once referred to our commitment to a manifest truth. Summarizing Smith’s summary, “I believe in God” meant “Given the reality of God, I’m with him. I trust in that reality and live accordingly.” It’s taking our subjective experience and aligning it with an objective fact. Call this believing 1.

In the seventeenth century, things began turning. The emphasis moved from trust to assertion. “I believe in God” now meant “Given the doubts some people have about the matter, I have decided for myself that, yes, God exists.” It’s primarily about asserting a contested fact. Call this believing 2.

In that regard, contra Bass, we’re closer to 2 than 1. But what’s really going on is that’ve moved onto what we can call believing 3, which is not about aligning our subjective experience with an objective fact—like subscribing to a creed in the older sense of the practice—but elevating our subjective experience to something approaching objective fact.

As I noted in a previous post about an Indian American’s trip to bathe in the Ganges what we are constructing here is a third thing, it is the subjective experience elevated to objective truth, if just for me.

What this means, of course, is that the “animals” of Oprah’s “wild kingdom” are reduced to something between a pet (because even pets have inconvenient consequence) and stuffed animals. For the Oprah’s trick to work, however, you can’t fully admit this. The tension has to hold.

I think of CS Lewis’ great quote from his book Miracles on Pantheism as God as a hunter/king/husband. We must feel the possibility of HaShem reading through the TV and demanding us but not too much.

I think of the turning point in James Cameron’s movie Avatar  movie where Eywa, the pantheist force/mother-planet-goddess who according to Neytiri would not take sides suddenly “Eywa has heard you“.

I think finally Oprah and those she leads want it both ways. We want the buffered self who can’t be disrupted by a demanding God who prohibits eating shellfish and blesses arranged marriages but wants an Eywa who hears.

Oprah has clearly been on a mission if you continue to follow her stable of gurus. She was a big backer of Rob Bell for a while but that seems to have fallen through. Elizabeth Gilbert was big for a while but we’ll see what happens after she came out as seduction addict.

Her lack of stability of her guru stable might be indicative of the inability to hold the tension. You can’t both safely peer into the wild kingdom from your buffered self and have Eywa hear you. The center doesn’t hold.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in Culture commentary, theological and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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