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Milwaukee's Kathryn Lofton on Oprah, Religion

Oct. 24, 2011
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Kathryn Lofton grew up walking Milwaukee's East Side with her sister, each sporting a Walkman. “She had cool music like Joy Division,” Lofton says. “I had Steve Winwood's 'Higher Love.'” Now, after the publication of Lofton's lauded book, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, the religion scholar has landed an assistant professorship at Yale. Hundreds of students may hang on her every word, but Lofton says her sister “remains much cooler.”

Why study religion?

I took an introductory class on the New Testament and the professor argued Paul was an exemplary politician. As a somewhat predictable Milwaukee leftist, I'd never thought religion revolutionary. I became electrified by the ways religions offered intimate forms of power and vivid pictures of new worlds. Advertising has made "this will change your life" pretty boring to hear, yet this is what religions claim. I study how religions do this, effectively and ineffectively.

Was teaching at Yale always a goal?

Oh gosh, no. When I finished graduate school, all I wanted was to teach and write and talk American religious history. The work itself has always been my ambition.

What was your book's genesis?

Undergraduate irony. At the University of Chicago, my dorm had a communal room with a television, and Oprah repeated late at night. I would sit with friends, all reading the same highbrow social and political theory. Few were as captivated by Oprah; I think it was too sentimental and mom-jean for them. To me, it was an intellectual playground, hitting on everything I was reading while also contesting those readings.

What is the most common misconception about your book?

That it's a biography of or ode to Oprah Winfrey, the woman. While her show and life provide the documentary basis for my research, I argue that the sorts of things Oprah talks about, and the ways she talks about them, are indicative of the way life is now imagined in the United States. Even if you know nothing about Oprah, the world you live in can be connected back to hers.

How's the reaction?

Most people seem eager to think about the relationship between popular culture and religious life. However, I have heard from Oprah fans worried I was too critical of Oprah, and also from Christians worried I was wrong to ascribe anything positive to Oprah. These letters represent exactly the thing I sought to describe, so I've been interested to engage these more anguished participants in the cultures Oprah creates.

Your next book examines the relationship between sexual and religious practices. Can you give us a sound bite description?

Religious and sexual practices share certain formal qualities; both include rituals, invite ethical debate and enact a sort of temporary exclusivity. I want to think about how religious people conceive sexual practice as an articulation of their religious lives. I'm tracking an early-20th-century Protestant fundamentalist accused of sodomy to observe how he justified his sexual life as coordinated with his theological conservatism. Since so many contemporary American political squabbles seem energized by anguish over ideas about sex and morality, I'm excited to think through earlier roots for this tension.

Any predictions about the future of religion?

Never bet against it. Never think you know what it ought to be. And never underestimate the power of its invocation and practice to change the world—for better and for worse.


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