The latest census figures from the U.K., released this week, confirm what many have long suspected: Hinduism, under the guise of “Star Wars”/New Age terminology, has become the unofficial religion of popular culture. “Jedi Knights” is now the most popular faith in the “Other Religions” category on the census and the seventh most popular faith overall, according to the latest population survey of England and Wales.
But let’s back up a bit. If you are going to understand the wielding of all these light-sabers, you need to go back and understand its leading guru.
No, not Obi-Wan.
There can be little doubt about the power, the influence and the inspiration of Oprah.
Her career began with a local radio station when she was just 19 years old. Then, through hard work and talent, she climbed her way up through television as newscaster and anchor, through Tennessee and Maryland, until finally, in 1984, she moved to WLS-TV in Chicago to host a local talk show, which became such a hit it eventually went national.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Now she is arguably the best-known woman in the world, with an influence that extends into television, magazines, movies, book publishing and the internet. By her 20th anniversary as host of The Oprah Winfrey Show, she had become a billionaire and assembled a U.S. television audience of more than 49 million viewers each week – which does not include her broadcasts in 122 other countries. Forbes magazine has named her the most influential celebrity.
Her latest venture? Her own television network.
But Oprah is more than a celebrity. She is even more than a brand, or a business.
She has become a shaping cultural force.
Oprah can single-handedly turn a book into a bestseller; she has been sued for crippling an entire industry simply by publicly denouncing its product. She even launches words; the Wall Street Journal coined the word “Oprahfication” to describe “public confession as a form of therapy.” Jet magazine uses “Oprah” as a verb, with sentences like, “I didn’t want to tell her, but... she Oprah’d it out of me.” Even our political process has been altered, as politicians now hold “Oprah-style” town meetings.
But her most significant role may be that of America’s spiritual guide.
Much of her guidance is deeply Christian and highly commendable, pulling from her Baptist upbringing. In her book The Gospel According to Oprah, Marcia Nelson outlines some of the orthodox and laudable aspects of Oprah’s spirituality, including the themes of forgiveness and generosity, self-examination, gratitude and community.
But there’s more to her spirituality than a few broad, generic Christian themes. It increasingly reflects currents of thought embodied by such authors as Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson and, most recently, Eckhart Tolle, whose book A New Earth has seen nearly 5 million shipped with the Oprah seal on the front thanks to a series of 10 “live” Monday night web seminars featuring Tolle and Winfrey on Oprah’s website. So popular were the webcasts that the first night brought down the server when more than 500,000 people tried to log on, and now millions have downloaded or streamed the first class.
So what are people learning?
As Tolle writes in the foreword to his book Stillness Speaks, his thinking “can be seen as a revival for the present age of the oldest form of recorded spiritual teaching: the sutras of ancient India.”
Translation? Hinduism. Or as he packages it, an eclectic gathering of gleanings from Hinduism, Buddhism and watered-down Christianity. Result? A fresh presentation of what was once called the New Age Movement, which tends to have four basic ideas:
The first is that “all is one, and one is all.” Which means, of course, that “God is all, and all is God.” Which also means that “I am God.” In his book The Power of Now, Tolle writes that he doesn’t like to use the word “God,” or to talk about finding God, because it implies an entity other than you, or me.
The second major belief is that since most people don't realize that they are God, they need to be enlightened. This enlightenment can flow from many sources, including “spirit-channeling.” Marianne Williamson, a frequent guest of Oprah’s, garnered her first bestseller -- A Return to Love -- by popularizing A Course in Miracles, which the author claimed was dictated by a spirit voice which she says was Jesus, but not Jesus of Nazareth.
The third major belief is that everything is relative. What Tolle advocates, and what has been advocated by many of Oprah’s guests, is that the truth is simply within you. Tolle writes that “The Truth is inseparable from who you are... you are the truth.” In fact, he distorts Jesus’ famous statement, “I am the way, the truth and the life,” by claiming that what Jesus meant was that He was His own truth, just like we can be our own truth.
A fourth major belief, in one form or another, is reincarnation. Toward the end of A New Earth, Tolle writes that “When the lion tears apart the body of the zebra, the consciousness that incarnated into the zebra-form detaches itself from the dissolving form and for a brief moment awakens to its essential immortal nature as consciousness; and then immediately falls back into sleep and reincarnates into another form.”
This worldview is far from unique to Oprah. Star Wars, one of the most celebrated film series in history, was wrapped around many of those very same New Age ideas. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that a census of the Czech Republic found that over 15,000 citizens listed their religion as Knights of the Jedi. They’re not alone; New Zealand and Great Britain had already listed the Jedi Church amongst the formal religion options. Indeed, over 390,000 Britons said that they practiced the religion in 2001 alone. As the Church of the Jedi says on its website, Star Wars helped created the religion’s terminology, but it did not create the faith itself.
And as mentioned at the beginning, the latest figures confirm its place as the seventh-largest religion of any kind.
The intangible energy of the “Force” is, of course, a very appealing view of God. It is a god based on autonomous individualism. To be “autonomous” is to be independent. The value of "autonomous individualism" maintains that each person is independent in terms of destiny and accountability. Ultimate moral authority is self-generated. In the end, we answer to no one but ourselves, for we are truly on our own. Our choices are solely ours, determined by our personal pleasure, and not by any higher moral authority.
It reminds me of something a professor at one of the Claremont colleges in California said to me about autonomy’s central place in our world’s mind. He quipped that it has produced a new argument against the existence of God: “It is a two-step proof,” he suggested. “One, I am not living in a way that would honor a God, were he to exist. Two, therefore he does not exist.”
Of course, there is nothing new about New Age thinking. It dates back further than Hinduism. Indeed, it can be found in the opening chapters of Genesis, for it was the heart of Satan’s temptation of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:1-5).
He challenged the idea of there being right or wrong.
"Now did God really say that you shouldn't do that?"
He said that death was an illusion.
“You will not surely die.”
He said that they could become divine.
“You will be like God.”
He said that the way they would become like God is through enlightenment.
“You will know good from evil.”
This is the unofficial folk religion of America as we begin the 21st century. We have eaten the forbidden fruit, only this time, it didn’t come in the form of an apple.
It came on a screen.
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, The Church In An Age of Crisis: The 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker).
On Oprah, see The Oprah Phenomenon by Robert J. Thompson, Jennifer Harris, and Elwood Watson; I Don’t Believe in Failure (The African American Biography Series) by Robin Westen; The Gospel According to Oprah by Marcia Nelson; “The Church of O,” LaTonya Taylor, posted 4/1/02, Christianity Today Magazine (christianitytoday.com).
On the thought of Tolle, see his books The Power of Now, Stillness Speaks and A New Earth.
“‘Star Wars’ Chosen as Religion in Czech Republic on New Census,” Huffington Post, December 18, 2011, read online.
“'Jedi' religion most popular alternative faith,” Henry Taylor, The Telegraph, December 11, 2012, read online.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.