Lessons From the Acceptance Speech That Stunned Hollywood

The Story:

Matthew McConaughey Thanks God, Then Refers to Himself as His Hero

The Hollywood crowd clearly did not know how to respond. A few distant murmurs could be heard. And the hesitant claps that were scattered throughout the audience seemed to be the result of unthinking awards-show etiquette rather than genuine enthusiasm. Since faith statements at the Academy Awards are so rare, our favorite actors and actresses — taken aback by the unexpected God reference — became uncomfortable, squirming in their seats and waiting anxiously for the speech to end.

I want to thank God because that is who I look up to,” Matthew McConaughey pronounced as he accepted the best-actor award for his role in Dallas Buyers Club. “He has graced my life with opportunities that I know were not of my hand or any other human hand. He’s shown me that it’s a scientific fact that gratitude reciprocates.”

Immediately following the speech, which was quickly viewed over half-a-million times on YouTube, people logged onto Twitter to express their support of McConaughey’s public recognition of God’s sovereignty. “[That’s a] Texas boy counting his blessings,” Texas Governor, Rick Perry, proudly declared.

But other Twitter users were not quite so complimentary. One impatient commentator wrote, “OK, so you really deserved it, McConaughey. Just stop the stupid God-talk.” Another particularly wrathful individual freely aired his fury, saying, “I thought we could get through the Oscars without someone thanking God, but no, he had to ruin it. [Expletive] you, McConaughey.”

Although Entertainment Weekly staffers cited McConaughey’s speech as the best of the night, they did so purely because of its entertainment value and not because of the substance of the speech (which makes sense for a magazine named “Entertainment” Weekly). There is no need to judge the quality of the remarks, they wrote. After all, McConaughey’s speech was memorable because, “This was McConaughey. This was America. This was 2014. This was the Oscars.” It seems as if popular media outlets, like the stunned Oscar audience, would rather gloss over McConaughey’s references to God than broach the subject of the divine.

It would be difficult for the Hollywood elite to take McConaughey’s comments seriously, though, because, as Ellen DeGeneres subtly hinted, their priorities are so tragically disordered. Poking fun at the sense of self-importance pulsating throughout the Dolby Theatre, DeGeneres joked, “I’m not saying that movies are the most important thing in the world, because we all know that the most important thing in the world is youth.”

The level of celebrity we grant these actors and directors makes it easy for us — and for them — to forget what’s really important, especially on Hollywood’s biggest night. When shining a light on actor Bruce Dern’s background, DeGeneres jibed, “His grandfather was the governor of Utah, his great uncle was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, and his godmother was Eleanor Roosevelt. And here you are among us tonight. What went wrong?”

In an environment that ceaselessly praises the transient and the temporal, how can we expect people to respond properly to the eternal? In their summary of the most golden Oscar moments, EW wrote the following about Laurent Witz, winner of Best Animated Short Film, “His hands were shaking and he spoke in a fantastic French accent — he was our new favorite person (for, like, an hour).” Perhaps a sustained engagement with eternal matters is impossible at an event that exalts beauty, youth, and Red Carpet style above all else. After McConaughey’s speech, MTV host, Chet Cannon, tweeted: “Did you notice when he thanked God the audience nearly took his award away?”

But even some popular Christian thinkers were dissatisfied with McConaughey’s remarks. John Stonestreet wrote, “I must admit, I’m not nearly as excited as others that Matthew McConaughey thanked God. He called himself his own hero.” Similar responses reverberated through the Twitterverse, with another person posting: “Did anyone else find it strange that McConaughey thanked himself last night? Essentially said, ‘I’m my greatest inspiration, so thanks me.’”

Biblical Insights:

Matthew McConaughey and the Pursuit of the Sanctified Self (Matthew 5:48)

As he stood on stage in a white tuxedo, grasping the gold Oscar trophy, the laid-back actor — best known for his frequent shirtlessness and trademark saying, “all right, all right, all right” — said everyone needs three things in life: someone to look up to, something to look forward to, and someone to chase. The Oscar winner said that he looks up to God and looks forward to experiencing life with his family. While looking at his wife and children, McConaughey said, “You are the four people that I want to make the most proud of me.”

Then, in a surprising conclusion, McConaughey did refer to himself as his own hero. Everyone needs someone to chase, and the actor chases the version of himself 10 years from now. While the actor’s claim can easily be written off as hubris, there is something oddly legitimate about his perspective, since, by pursuing the best version of himself, he is seeking to become the person God designed him to be. After all, if we can’t look up to the person we will be in 10 years, then that is an indication that we are not allowing the Spirit of God to operate within us in order to sanctify us.

“I know I’ll never attain it,” McConaughey said about the goal he had, sounding quite a bit like the apostle Paul (Phil. 3:12) and acknowledging that he will always be chasing that future version of himself who is wiser, more patient, more skilled, and more loving.

Here is the nugget of truth lurking underneath McConaughey’s acceptance speech: Ultimately, if we look up to God, then God is the one who informs what kind of person we ought to be. And if we look to our future sanctified selves for hope, then we will constantly be nearing the perfection to which God calls us. The first part — looking up to God — is most important, since it puts everything else into its proper place (Matthew 6:33).

At the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Jesus, as the ideal human being, epitomized God’s holy perfection, which is why we rightfully seek to imitate him. When we, as Christ-followers, imitate Christ, then we ourselves should become sanctified individuals who serve as an example for others.

This is what Paul indicated in 1 Corinthians 4:16 when he advised the church to imitate him. For Paul, a mature Christian, was closer to Christlikeness than someone new to the faith. Thus, the life that Paul led was meant to reveal the truth of the gospel he constantly preached and to encourage others to follow on the path of righteousness.

Jesus says in John 5:19, “[The Son] only does what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does.” Jesus, by looking up to the Father, listened to the Father and fully obeyed his every command. Paul attempted this, too, though he continually fell short of his ultimate goal of godly perfection: “I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection! But I keep working toward that day when I will finally be all that Christ Jesus saved me for and wants me to be” (Philippians 3:12).

If McConaughey truly looks up to God, then it is reasonable to assume that the version of himself who lives 10 years in the future will be further along the narrow road than his current self. Since we are called by Christ to pursue virtue, to exhibit patience, to show kindness, and to overwhelm people with love, we, too, should pursue that version of ourselves that is more advanced in Christian holiness. There is nothing wrong with considering your sanctified self your hero, since that sanctified self, by definition, will bear a closer resemblance to Christ, who remains the ideal. When we look up to God with a spirit of praise, thanksgiving, and obedience, the version of ourselves residing 10 years in the future should be someone we can look up to.