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The Hemi Q&A: Oprah Winfrey

The former Queen of Daytime TV says she ‘cannot ask another question about what color eye shadow a woman is wearing.’ This month, she tackles perhaps the deepest question of all.

Author Reza Aslan Illustration Mark Stutzman

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Oprah Winfrey is not a celebrity—she is an American icon. The actress, producer, media mogul, best-selling author, philanthropist and talk-show host has achieved pretty much every success possible in the entertainment industry. She has received numerous honors and awards for her accomplishments and for her humanitarian work, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It is no exaggeration to say that Winfrey may be the most famous woman in the world. So when she tells me that her new documentary series, “Belief,” is the culmination of everything she has done in her career, I can’t help but take notice.

The landmark seven-night television event, which premieres October 18 on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, explores the many ways in which people of diverse faiths search for deeper meaning in their lives and in the world around them. “Belief” invites viewers to tag along with people on various spiritual journeys in every corner of the world, from a Hungarian Jewish boy preparing for his bar mitzvah to an American Evangelical woman reconnecting with her faith.

The timing couldn’t be better. Although religious affiliation is on the decline in the United States—according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, nearly a quarter of Americans identify as “religiously unaffiliated”—religion remains a powerful force both at home and abroad. And yet, our conversations about religion and faith have become increasingly disconnected from people’s actual lived experiences. “Belief” challenges the overly simplistic ways we think about religion and spirituality. Watching the subjects of “Belief” wrestle with the majesty and mystery of faith, one is struck by a simple yet profound truth: Faith is a journey of many paths, but with a single destination. No matter which path one chooses, what binds people of faith together is the desire to serve a higher purpose than themselves.

It’s hard to imagine a better guide for such a journey than Winfrey. Throughout her career, she has been an exemplar of an inclusive, all-encompassing spirituality, one that finds meaning in everyday experiences but that is not tied to any specific doctrine or creed. In a way, this series, which she calls “my life’s work, my heart’s work,” is the apotheosis of her own spiritual journey, one that has taken her from a white-frame church at the end of a dirt road in rural Mississippi to the very heights of fame and success.

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Hemispheres: You’ve referred to this series as the culmination of your life’s work. For someone who has achieved so much in her career, that’s a pretty big statement.
Oprah WInfrey: It’s the culmination of everything I’ve been trying to say in all those years using the show. I can say now that this is what I really cared about. Everything else was what I needed to do to be on the air and to appeal to a larger audience. I finally said to my team in the waning years of the show, “I cannot ask another question about what color eye shadow a woman is wearing.” I just can’t put myself in the chair and ask that question again. The last four or five years of the show, the episodes that lit me up—the ones that I felt an increasing desire to share with the world—were the ones that were based on the idea of inspiring and connecting to other people spiritually in a way that they could see themselves.

Hemispheres: There are so many incredible stories of people on various journeys of faith in this series. How did you decide on your subjects?
WInfrey: We wanted to choose stories that most illuminated the power of belief, and that’s a great undertaking. There was a lot of serious talk about how we get people to understand that belief is something larger than ourselves, how belief makes us stronger, how it gets us through tough times, and how it allows people to soar. We started out in a room with myself and the producers and a big, huge wall with stories and story ideas. We knew we wanted the stories of the major religions—and some that were not. We had people on the ground in each of the countries looking for stories that would showcase the world. They were literally sending in tapes and interviews with lots of different people who represented different faiths. That was almost a year’s process, just figuring out who could best tell the story. I looked at six or seven boys having their bar mitzvahs, but I kept coming back to Mendel [a Hungarian teen] because the innocence of him and the sweetness of him, I thought, would translate and resonate in a way with people that some of the others didn’t.

Hemispheres: Out of all the various people you feature in the series, who do you identify with the most and why?
Winfrey: I genuinely cannot pick one. Of course, I see myself in Cha Cha [an Evangelical woman who reconnects with her faith after a sexual assault], but I also see myself in the seekers whose belief took them on journeys across the world. I see myself in the questioners, those struggling with what to believe and why, because we’ve all been there—everybody’s been in that moment. In many ways, I think that this series is a mirror, and I know I see myself in the stories of many of them.

Hemispheres: How do you expect nonbelievers to relate?
WInfrey: You hear a lot of people say, “I’m more spiritual than I am religious,” and I think that even in nonbelief there is a belief in life, and that’s good enough for me. There are nonbelievers, there are questioners, there are seekers and more throughout the series. We have strong stories of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews and other religions. But [we have] nonreligious stories as well, and I think there is inspiration here for everyone. Actually, when I looked at all of the stories put together, the most impressive story for me was that of a rock climber named Alex. He defines himself as an atheist. But, to me, he’s the true believer in the present moment that we call life, which is what we all are striving for—to be fully present in this moment. When I first looked at Alex’s story, they had this whole music soundtrack to it, and I said, “You know, the real soundtrack for this is his breath.” In each breath, when you hear him climbing that big rock—you know that if he slips, it’s four seconds between life and death. Juxtapose him against a story, in episode seven, of Donna, who’s given a diagnosis that she has only a few months to live, and she uses her faith to help her cling to life in a very different kind of way. But I see them both as equal, in that she’s clinging to life with her faith, and he’s clinging to life with his foothold and handhold on that mountain. It all, in a way, feels energetically the same to me—they are just manifesting [belief] differently. Alex is a classic nonbeliever, but his faith is in the present moment. And from where I sit, I can see that the present moment is God.

Hemispheres: You’ve always been interested in active viewers who take part in the things you’re interested in. So how can viewers of this series take part and empower some of their leaders, particularly those around the world working toward interfaith peace and interfaith relations, at a time when it seems all we hear about is religious conflict?
WInfrey: For me, faith is not just about preaching and exhorting but about taking risks and doing. I mean, the imam and the pastor in Nigeria [former enemies now working together for interfaith peace]—look at the risks that they took in coming together. You can see, even as they go into the crowds, how the people are staring at them. They’re in disbelief, too! In that moment, I think, a wall comes down. The best I can do—the best we can do as storytellers and filmmakers—is to show that the wall can come down. And if they can do it, imagine what you can do. So the next time you run into a person who is “the other,” wherever that happens to be—in your neighborhood, in the workplace, in your family, even—just become a little more open. I think the pastor and imam do exactly what I’ve been trying to do through other shows, and specifically what I have the intention to do with this series: drop a piece of light right there in the middle of your consciousness. The whole purpose of every one of these stories is to open the heart space just a little bit. It doesn’t matter how long you sit and meditate—I meditate every morning. What is it for if it doesn’t allow you to move through the world in a more calmed and centered space? To me, that’s the true test of what faith is: How does it allow you to behave in the world?

Hemispheres: Clearly, you still see a place for religion.
WInfrey: Oh, absolutely. I think even in your spiritual practice, if you bring a level of religiosity to it—where there is order and there is ritual—it becomes enhanced. There is certainly a way to combine the best of both, because religion without spirituality is just doctrine, and spirituality without some sense of discipline and order does not bring you the level of consistency and continued peace. I’ve been in a state where I wasn’t going to church, I wasn’t meditating, I wasn’t having an ordered spiritual practice, and I felt a bit lost. I felt loosened from the center, from the core, from the source of life, which I call God. I lead a better life, and I am a better person, when I have a religious practice that stems from my spiritual beliefs.

Hemispheres: Can you tell us about your spiritual journey?
WInfrey: I was a die-hard Baptist. The Christian church is my foundation. It is my rock. It’s the reason that I became a television personality. My preparation for my career began standing in front of a church with 30 pews. My first public speaking was in the church. My first speech was “Jesus rose on Easter Day, Hallelu! Hallelu! All the angels did proclaim.” But I was taught to believe that you never question anything. It was in asking those questions, that was what opened me to a larger view of the grandeur, the majesty and the mystery of God—and that there are no whole answers. That’s when my spiritual journey actually began. So, in a series of experiences that happened to me, I started to ask questions. And it created an openness to God, an openness to my faith and an openness to life that really has been my journey and continues to be a part of my journey. I am nowhere without faith.

Reza Aslan is a religious scholar and New York Times best-selling author. He teaches creative writing at the University of California, Riverside.

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