During her appearance on American Idol last week, Lady Gaga told the audience, without being prompted, that she wasn't interested in judging the contestants, only in bringing out what was special about each of them. "I want to free [my fans] of their fears and make them feel … that they can create their own space in the world," Gaga has said, a goal that sounds nearly salvific in nature. When an interviewer recently called Lady Gaga the "Billy Graham of pop," she claimed, "I'm teaching people to worship themselves."

This successful mode of evangelism—the discipleship of Gaga, so to speak—is significant because even though Lady Gaga proclaims a fairly conventional "peace and love" message, her marketability relies on her ability to make that message outrageous (thus, the bizarre makeup and leotard she wore during American Idol).

Gaga has even referred to her Monster Ball concert tour as a "religious experience" and "pop culture church." And the result Lady Gaga promises in return is a transformation not all that far removed from Oprah Winfrey's message of self-empowerment through extreme makeovers and confession.

It might seem an unusual comparison, but Lady Gaga and Oprah—who both appear in the top 10 on Forbes's most powerful women list—have crafted similar cultural personas when it comes to outrageous extravagance, cultivating an audience-as-family dynamic (Oprah with her personal appeals and studio setting, Lady Gaga referring to her fans as "little monsters") and supposedly all-inclusive non-judgmental outlook.

In the new book Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, religion scholar Kathryn Lofton writes, "Celebrities are indistinguishable from corporate brands. What separates Winfrey's work is the soul-salving signification attached to her recommendations." Lofton identified the allure of the Oprah brand (modeled after Oprah's image) as something the consumer could feel good about buying because of its calculated promotion of diversity, tolerance, and goodwill. Lofton writes:

[Oprah's] consumption of products, people, and ideas possesses an impressive diversity, yet she assimilates all those characters into herself, into her incorporated individual "she." Oprah toys publicly with her racial identity, constantly searching for a way to include more (more people, more ideas, more confession, more objects) and exclude fewer from her particularity. Preachers and saleswomen share the common ambition to convert the multitudes under their advertising slogans proposing exclusivity.
Article continues below

Both Oprah and Gaga encourage this club of consumerism, crafting an unwritten understanding that true fans will subscribe to Oprah's magazine or devote hours to the game of FarmVille in order to hear the advance stream of Gaga's new album. Their star power is defined in large part through their influence over fans' buying decisions. In a demonstration of good marketing, in order to stand apart from the cacophony, these stars cleverly attach a powerful message to the product.

But once a star like Gaga or Oprah is established, the product, the message, and the messenger can all become blurred into one larger brand.

So what about when one of these stars defines something as unworthy? Intriguingly, although both Oprah and Gaga claim a wide embrace of life and love, they have been outspoken in their notable exclusions. For instance: Oprah turning the considerable public force of her ire on James Frey following the revelation of his "embellished" memoir; and Gaga speaking out against controversial political decisions, such as the immigration law in Arizona and the military's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy.

The impact that icons like these have on our culture shouldn't be dismissed in conversations revolving around what they wear, what is coming up next, or how their fans behave. Somehow, their relative value in our society can also make Oprah the appropriate unifying choice as host of an interfaith ceremony in the wake of national disaster, and Gaga's campaign draw responses from multiple politicians, including the Senate Majority Leader. Self-definition as a "fan" has become part of our culture, so much so that having an informed opinion about icons such as Oprah and Lady Gaga is necessary in regular conversation.

Yet when pop culture demands that we define ourselves by our devotion to cultural icons, we must see that demand as one of discipleship—and ask how it weakens our devotion to Christ. I myself will always be wary to call myself a "true fan" of any person or pop culture icon—despite liking some of Oprah's book choices and singing along to Gaga's catchy choruses. This is not because Oprah and Lady Gaga offend me, but because I cannot completely buy into the messages they are touting. I can't give them that much power.

We Christians risk giving too much power to even our own cultural icons. It would be just as wrong to "buy into" the messages of Christian leaders like Rick Warren and Beth Moore without discernment as it would be with Oprah or Lady Gaga. It's the potential for idolatry that is the danger, not, for example, the controversy-baiting behind the recent Catholicism-borrowing imagery and lyrics in Gaga's new single, "Judas."

The power of pop icons in our culture includes their ability to define the worth of a thing, and that is the true outrage of Lady Gaga or Oprah: the power that we give them.