I’ve never met Oprah.
In one long chapter of my life when I was a reformed fundamentalist, I was highly critical of her populist spirituality.
But in the past five years I’m quite comfortable with saying as a white, privileged, evangelical male Oprah has become a quite a spiritual mentor for me in faith, sexuality and friendship.
Are you uncomfortable with that?
“Sexuality plays a role in all friendship, in all human relationships.
It is embodied sexual beings who encounter one another.”
Enda McDonagh, Vulnerable to the Holy
Oprah has enriched my hermeneutics of embodiment, sexuality, and friendship.
Her well-known friendship with Gayle King has highlighted before a watching world of millions the sacred connection between sexuality and friendship.
Let’s refresh our memories and the different interpretations about this deep bond:
“I understand why people think we’re gay. There isn’t
a definition in our culture for this kind of bond between women.”
“What they did on that road trip together, that’s as gay as it gets,
And I don’t mean it to be an insult, either.”
“But as long as they bond openly as female ‘friends’ have bonded since the
days of women’s liberation, then people of this culture have every reason to assert,
in the vernacular, ‘If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…it’s a duck.”
Anthony Livingston Hall, The Ipinions Journal
“Of the positive contributions Oprah has made in the world, “I’d put the role model of her friendship with Gayle at the top of the list” writes
Angie Schuller Wyatt, God and Boobs
These quotes give us the full range of hermeneutics and politics of love.
I’m not here to persuade anyone from their interpretative lens. You are welcome to join in the conversation no matter which lens you view the Oprah-Gayle relationship.
I believe that the Oprah-Gayle friendship reveals the deep connection between sexuality and friendship. I understand lens which interpret their relationship as two women who are gay lovers. I also understand those who interpret them through a bisexual hermeneutic.
Taking Oprah at her word on her friendship I think Oprah is one of the most influential voices for men and women as she embodies a post-Freud ethic on sexuality and friendship.
1. In a post-Freud world it is good and beautiful (and therefore wise) to see the deep connection between friendship and sexuality.
Time is running out for Christians who drive a wedge between sexuality and friendship. Oprah has inspired millions of women outside the churches and inside. Angie Schuller Wyatt, spiritual director and therapist is just one example.
If one does any kind of research on the history of friendship, it is beyond dispute that Freud’s theories introduced a deep separation between sexuality and friendship. All expressions of deep friendship—male friendships, female friendships, male-female friendships—were vulnerable to sudden suspicions that passionate expressions of love could be signs of unconscious sexual desires.
I don’t know how many friendship books have referred to the fear of women regarding the intensity of intimate female friendship. Therapist Annette Annechild observes that many women misinterpreted her desire to do a survey of female friendships as something about “lesbians” (I Can Tell Her Anything).
Sandy Sheehy in her book, Connecting reports that women held back physical affection or feared getting too close to other women because it could mean they might be latent lesbians. This fear she said, leads many women “literally out of touch with our friends.”
Conventional Freudian wisdom (and evangelical wisdom) has driven a wedge between sexuality and friendship.
Oprah-embodied wisdom has encouraged millions of women to consider the wisdom of another hermeneutic: embrace the deep connection between sexuality and friendship.
Perhaps Oprah wouldn’t describe it this way herself.
What do I mean by this?
I mean Oprah has boldly reclaimed so much of what Freud ransacked from deep friendships. She has reclaimed intensity of intimacy, everyday intimacy, attraction, affection, delight, warmth, tenderness, generosity, loyalty, passionate connection, in friendship.
Where the connection comes in is she has done it as an embodied sexual being.
“Christians have a long and complicated relationship
with love, sexuality, and friendship.”
L. William Countryman
Those living in the Freudian world of 20th century sexual fundamentalism interpreted any emerging signs of passionate connection toward a friend as potential unconscious sexual urges. Oprah’s wisdom unashamedly presents a different hermeneutic for the meaning of embodiment, everyday closeness, in enduring intimate friendship.
Is there a Christian wisdom beyond Freud which would resonate with Oprah’s wisdom? Some of my Christian brothers and sisters wedded to a Freudian past think it is naive (rather than wise) to integrate sexuality and friendship. The Freudian fear expressed in some Christian communities has led Christians to see wisdom as a list of rules and dos and don’ts.
But is there a compelling alternative hermeneutic of embodied wisdom?
"We must never be afraid to go too far, for truth lies beyond."
Christian author William Struthers in his book Wired for Intimacy considers the following to be signs of healthy sexuality:
caring, sharing with someone, honoring, authentic, enhances your identity, emotional bonding, spiritual unity, morally saturated, communication is essential, other-directed, Biblical boundaries, involves all of the person, naturally drives us toward intimacy, naturally drives us toward sanctification, matures into responsible habits, nurtures the spouse, is an expression of love, humanizes, honors the image/imaging of God in you, honors the image/imagining of God in the spouse, provides emotional moral, psychological, and relational clarity.
Now if I could seek out Oprah for an interview and go down this list and ask her if her deep friendship with Gayle embodies these signs I’m quite sure she would say yes with one or two exceptions (I could hear her questioning “biblical boundaries”). I’m absolutely positive she would easily replace “spouse” in this with “friend.”
With the exception for the sexual act and sexual intimacy all these signs of healthy sexuality have deep roots in the Christian tradition as wise signs of spiritual friendship.
While Christians within a Freudian hermeneutic have considered it unwise to make the connection, Oprah has been a spiritual mentor to lead many women (and men) to a robust hermeneutic of sexuality and friendship. In this sense, Oprah’s spirituality has led many women to deep roots and wisdom within the spiritual friendship tradition on this side of Freud. But in the sense of God making all things new, breaking down barriers between men and women might be the first barrier in a post-Freud world.
The rich, life-giving connection between sexuality and friendship is that both are relational paths toward for the human quest for union, love, meaning, fulfillment, and flourishing.
The boundaries between sexuality and friendship have sacred connection in Oprah’s world even if she might not use that language herself.
Does that spook you?
Or can you see mystery in the deep truth of sexuality and friendship? Is it possible the Oprah-Gayle bond might offer to Christians a compelling hermeneutic for sexuality and friendship? What if the shift in boundaries between sexuality and friendship reveals a movement from the old into the new creation?
“Much of our life we are trying to connect the dots,
to pierce the heart of reality to see what is good, true, and
beautiful for us. We want something lasting and Transcendent.”
This is what a great spiritual mentor does for us. In the fullest sense of the word“spiritual,” a mentor guides us to discern the gift of the Spirit in the new creation. Mentors lead us into the heart of reality to see what is good, true, and beautiful. Christians can learn from Oprah.
Part two in this series will explore another area Christians can learn from Oprah: Women practicing creative responsibility in a post-Freud world engulfed in sexual politics.