Photo from Oprah.com
By Cathleen Falsani Sun-Times Religion Columnist
Oprah Winfrey has been spiritually educating her viewers for years. On Monday, she began offering formal instruction to more than 700,000 students across the globe.
Before the first session of "A New Earth" -- a free, 10-week online class taught by Winfrey and Eckhart Tolle, the German-born spiritual teacher and author of the current Oprah's Book Club pick A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purposes -- according to Oprah .com, hundreds of thousands had registered to take part in the 90-minute cyber sessions each at 8 p.m. on Mondays.
Best seller isn't a quick read
A New Earth is not light reading. It's esoteric and high-minded. Literally. In his best-selling tome, Eckhart encourages readers to view the book as an opportunity for enlightenment.
"The ideas and concepts presented here may be important, but they are secondary," Tolle writes in the first chapter, the reading assignment for Monday night's first online class. "They are no more than signposts toward awakening. As you read, a shift takes place in you. This book's main purpose is not to add new information or beliefs to your mind or to try to convince you of anything, but to bring about a shift in consciousness, that is to say, to awaken."
It's not the kind of religious platitude you can easily put on a T-shirt or sum up in a bumper sticker. That was, as I understand it, part of the impetus behind Winfrey's creation of the online class: to help readers through some of the challenging passages, to aid them in acclimating to the "languaging of new consciousness," as she told USA Today.
A New Earth is not the kind of book that offers step-by-step instructions for enlightenment. Chant this. Light this. Meditate on that. It's far more opaque.
After making my own way through the first chapter -- reading and rereading a number of paragraphs to make sure I grasped what Tolle was getting at -- I had to wonder what would make 700,000 people want to commit to exploring this particular brand of East-West-hybrid mysticism.
Some say Oprah has become one of the most -- if not the most -- significant spiritual leaders of our time, a title I'm pretty sure she neither desires nor appreciates. If she hasn't taken on the mantle of "America's pastor," she certainly has stepped into the role of Pointer in Chief -- directing viewers toward people, things, concepts and ideals that she finds edifying.
Both Tolle and Oprah (through the class materials on Oprah.com) emphasize that A New Earth (which takes its name from biblical passages that talk about the creation of "a new heaven and a new earth") is not anti-religion.