As I watched the 86th Academy Awards this week, I was struck both by the type of God-talk I heard and, on the contrary, the lack of it. I don’t usually watch an entire awards broadcast, but U2 were up for Best Original Song, so I settled in with my remote and my Twitter account. (Poor U2, they were beat by a cartoon. But they still had a great stage performance of "Ordinary Love"!)
I noticed an amazing contrast between the beginning and the end of the Oscar presentations. Early on, Lupita Nyong’o won Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance in 12 Years a Slave. Her use of “spirit” language caught my attention as she delivered an insightful and sensitive acceptance speech. I thought it was the best of the evening.
It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s
“It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s,” Lupita said, recognizing the irony of her elevated status in light of the character she played. From a well-educated professional family in Kenya, she wouldn’t have been able to make a film like this without resources that the slave she portrayed would never come close to having. That’s a healthy level of self-awareness.
I wish all of us could be that self-reflective. Most of our comforts come unintentionally through the forced labor of modern slaves. These are the people who mine minerals for our smartphones, harvest beans for our coffee and pick cotton for our clothes. Our joy comes from other people’s pain; this systemic injustice is inescapable. Thanks for the reminder, Lupita. (Find out how many slaves work for you here.)
Another of Lupita’s comments also stuck with me:
"Steve McQueen, you charge everything you fashion with a breath of your own spirit. Thank you so much for putting me in this position, it’s been the joy of my life. I’m certain that the dead are standing about you and watching and they are grateful and so am I."
You charge everything you fashion with a breath of your own spirit
Lupita comes from the Luo culture of Kenya. Unlike Westerners, who consistently separate soul and body and compartmentalize the spiritual and the physical, Africa tends to be more holistic. As a consequence, Lupita’s use of “spirit” is probably closer to an accurate biblical interpretation than most American Christians’ understanding of the concept.
The ancient Hebrews used the term ruach to speak of God’s spirit. Ruach was the wild, unpredictable, uncontrollable breath of God that could bring life to primordial chaos and give guidance to wandering nomads. In the New Testament, pneuma (Greek term) is the wind that Jesus spoke of, blowing to and fro where no one knows. Spirit, breath, life, soul, flesh and body are all interrelated and celebrated through human existence and pursuit of the divine. As with the Jews of old, there is no dichotomy for the African, thus, Lupita is able to think of spirit as a creative, life-giving force that is accessible to all.
The dead are standing about you and watching
Also catching my attention was Lupita’s belief that “the dead are standing about you and watching,” That reminds me of Hebrews 12:1, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
Again, we Westerners don’t know what to do with a scripture like this because we think of Heaven/spirit/afterlife as something that happens in the future. The Hebrew reader, however, understood that the spirit world intersects the physical world every moment of the day. Though I don’t know of any Christian commitment on Lupita’s part, her sense of spirit is better than many Christians. She was thinking about all of the souls who came before her, and acknowledged the hope and encouragement their memory provides.
The contrast really hit home when I listened to Matthew McConaughey accept the award for Best Actor in a Leading Role near the end of the broadcast. He gave the generic I-want-to-thank-God speech. I was stunned that no one prior to this had invoked the name of God—it used to be quite fashionable. I’m sure McConaughey was sincere, but his speech was dripping with self-importance (he explained to the audience that he is his own hero). Complete with southern drawl, his comments about God reminded me of a TV preacher hustling donations. During his convoluted and confusing speech, he never even mentioned the plight of HIV/AIDS, a major theme of his movie, The Dallas Buyers Club (and as Jared Leto so eloquently did when he won Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his work in the same film). I’m not faulting him, but it just seemed flat and one-dimensional. It felt... well, generic.
On the surface, and certainly from an American perspective, Matthew McConaughey seemed to have the appropriate, if not orthodox, comments about God, and there’s no doubt he was grateful. But it was Lupita who captured the essence of spirit, as she spoke of life and honored her heritage and culture.
I need more of that kind of a spiritual outlook on life—it’s biblical. It would probably help if I was a bit less Western. And it’s probably going to take a lot more Lupitas to help most of us with that one.