What Oprah Told Us About Ourselves

75th Annual Golden Globe Awards - Show
— Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal via Getty Images —

On Sunday night at The Golden Globes, Oprah Winfrey received the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award. Her rousing speech referenced her mother and Sidney Poitier, Recy Taylor and Rosa Parks, and culminated in a house-raising promise to little girls everywhere that the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements are the dawn of a new world.

Thrilled followers immediately called for a presidential run in 2020, enflaming the usual debate about political merits and prospects. Some of my conservative friends have responded predictably the past couple days, highlighting various and sundry problems with Oprah or the Hollywood crowd adoring her speech in real time.

But in large part, Oprah’s speech was well done as a call for needed justice in our ongoing Weinstein moment, and her storytelling, timing, and rhetorical wisdom are a model for anyone wishing to inspire others. Despite the hypocrisy of Hollywood A-listers lauding a speech demanding sexual ethics, Oprah’s dominant note—justice for women who’ve been wronged—follows the plumb line of God’s design for the world he’s made.

Several times Oprah encouraged “speaking your truth,” a shibboleth of the age that only makes sense in a self-idolatrous culture untethered from absolutes. But in Oprah’s speech, this foolish and dangerous new entry in our lexicon of relativism actually meant something good, healthy, and needed. It meant something like exposing wrongdoing and holding the powerful accountable by publicizing real stories of oppression. Oprah was urging women everywhere to voice their real experiences of abuse in a world that sinfully stifles and silences such voices.

She praised the truth-telling responsibility of the press:

[I]t is the insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth that keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and to injustice—to tyrants and victims and secrets and lies.

She urged women to tell their stories of abuse and mistreatment:

What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. And I’m especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories.

She told the story of Recy Taylor, gang-raped without justice during Jim Crow:

She lived as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men…

She then promised that the age of secret oppression and unaccountable oppressors is over:

Their time is up. And I just hope—I just hope that Recy Taylor died knowing that her truth, like the truth of so many other women who were tormented in those years and even now tormented, goes marching on. It was somewhere in Rosa Parks’ heart almost 11 years later when she made the decision to stay seated on that bus in Montgomery. And it’s here with every woman who chooses to say, “Me too,” and every man who chooses to listen.

Oprah used the phrase “speak your truth” as code for sharing your story. You may like that or you might hate it, but regardless, her speech (and the overwhelming response of her audience) exposed some vital realities about what kind of people we are.

The simplest is this: Humans are moral beings. Dwayne Johnson stands spellbound. The rapper Common pounds his hands together in determined applause. Tom Hanks looks on with proud satisfaction. Women throughout the Beverly Hilton’s International Ballroom revel in the gravity of the moment. Their salivating response reveals more than just the street cred Oprah possesses among her peers. It also proves that a moral instinct resonates and rages in the deepest recesses of the human soul. Our spiritual blindness means that these moral sensibilities are fractured and selective, but we can’t escape the overwhelming moral dimensions of life in God’s world.

Because we’re moral beings, people are desperate for justice. We’ve abandoned God’s law and distorted his design, but we still groan for the rightness and shalom of our factory settings. There are certain ways that humans just shouldn’t treat other humans, and sometimes even the blind squirrels and the broken clocks in our society play out their punchlines and get it right. This was one of those times, and Oprah nailed it.

But why did these Hollywood elites respond with such rapture? Because the world is waiting for prophets. We’re waiting for truth-tellers who will reignite the torch just as the path goes dark. We’re waiting for someone to say what needs to be said. We’re waiting for—as Oprah said over and over again—someone to speak truth to power. Of course, we tend to reject God’s prophets (like Haggai or Malachi) and commission our own (like Trump or Oprah). Then we build our new prophets’ platforms on the shifting sand of our own preferences. But still, despite our distorted definition of a truth-teller, we can’t help ourselves—we keep looking for people who will tell us what we perceive to be the truth.

We’re moral beings desperate for justice and waiting for prophets—which means that society is hungry for eschatology. As Oprah rose to her crescendo, she began sounding like Isaiah’s prophecy or John’s revelation. Some of her final words were downright eschatological:

  • Their time is up. Their time is up.
  • . . . the truth . . . goes marching on.
  • . . . hope for a brighter morning, even during our darkest nights.
  • A new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns . . .
  • . . . leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say “Me too” again.

Every generation longs for the inbreaking of a better society, a renewed age, an ideal world. There’s little consensus about how to make it happen, but the longing never ceases, and the hunger is never satisfied. Thankfully, Christians know that the just and perfect world for which we long and which so constantly evades us will not come about as the crowning achievement of natural evolutionary processes or our collective willpower as a species. Because our battle is not against flesh, or blood, or genetics, but sin and Satan and even ourselves. Which is why the final battle will not be won by a president or a scientist or a general or an activist, but a returning king.

Nevertheless, the controversies, travesties, and follies of our day are provoking many to take a stand as self-commissioned prophets. These self-styled prophets are rising from everywhere, clamoring to speak “their truth” to the evils in power and the powers of evil. Men and women of all political and religious stripes are laboring to convince us that their cluster of passions best represent the honest truth. Even those whose influence falls far short of Oprah’s empire (like me) are multiplying their words in an effort to tell us how it should be.

Which means there’s one last vital truth revealed by Oprah’s speech and its polarized response: We need discernment. As faithful followers of Jesus, we can’t just click, scan, and share. We can’t just react along partisan lines, or shoot the messenger, or pump out our like’s and share’s and retweet’s just because the guy we like sounded clever and the guy who annoys us got burned.

The world is too complicated. Our attention is too fragmented. Satan is too slick. We need to slow down, and think, and read, and talk it out, and pray. Because there are so many voices rising, and clamoring, and doing the most weighty thing we can do with our words: making claims.

Let’s say someone finds themselves on the religious or political or cultural right. Who has your ear? Who are you going to trust? Who’s going to shape your reasoning and your affections and your decisions? The prairie poetics of Ann Voskamp? The indignant screeds of Matt Walsh? The whizkid harangues of Ben Shapiro? The bullish bombasity of President Trump? The transgressive moxie of Milo Yiannopoulos?

Everyone—whether left, right, center, or out in left field—claims to be speaking the truth. But how do you know who’s speaking for God? And how will you know when the moral resonance you feel deep in your heart when watching a video or reading an article or reacting to a news story isn’t just the byproduct of heavy societal pressure, unrighteous indignation, reactive partisanship, or a social media warrior syndrome that’s been shaping you into its mold over the years?

Study hard. Read carefully. Respect others. Have hard conversations. Listen long. Read your Bible. Pray a lot. Ours is no simple age, but it’s a beautiful time to be alive. And for as long as we have life, we have an obligation to tell the true story of the world to those we’re privileged to influence—moral beings desperate for justice and waiting for true prophets who will hold forth a vision of a better world than they could ever dream.