I don’t watch award shows, but Chris Pratt’s MTV awards acceptance speech was being shared widely on social media yesterday. And I really cannot rave about it enough. To say that it might be my favorite acceptance speech ever doesn’t really do it justice because who rates acceptance speeches. Instead, I’ll say it’s been one of my favorite pieces of rhetoric to analyze. I found myself commenting over and over again on Facebook, noting the cleverness of this phrase or the perfect timing of that. Eventually I wrote almost a full essay on my sister’s Facebook wall. Thereafter several people asked me to put it into a form they could share. Before they even asked, though, I was already planning to make it into a blog essay.
As a teacher, I’m already filing it away for future use. Pratt’s speech would be perfect to use as an example of persuasive writing or speaking or as an example of masterly evangelization. This is how you preach the Gospel in public to a secular audience and walk away with atheists and agnostics praising you for having the courage of your convictions, even while they disagree with you about God.
It’s an elegant, humble, and funny proclamation of the Gospel in a way that is totally accessible to anyone and offensive to no one. Masterfully done. And with a poop joke. (Many people complained about the out of place poop joke, but as I shall explain I think it’s one of the most masterful of his rhetorical devices. Pitch perfect even while sounding awkward and out of place.)
Pratt introduced his Nine Rules for Life with a self-deprecating joke: “I’m going to cut to the chase and I am going to speak to you, the next generation,” Pratt said. “I accept the responsibility as your elder. So, listen up.”
Of course Pratt is a young, up-and-coming actor, hardly an elder. So he deflates and deflects potential criticism with a joke. And yet his words prove that he does have wisdom worth listening to.
1. “Breathe. If you don’t, you will suffocate.”
2. “You have a soul. Be careful with it.”
3. “Don’t be a turd. If you are strong, be a protector. If you are smart, be a humble influencer. Strength and intelligence can be weapons, so do not wield them against the weak. That makes you a bully. Be bigger than that.”
4. “When giving a dog medicine, put the medicine in a little piece of hamburger and they won’t even know they’re eating medicine.”
5. “It doesn’t matter what it is. Earn it. A good deed. Reach out to someone in pain. Be of service. It feels good and it’s good for your soul.”
6. “God is real. God loves you, God wants the best for you. Believe that, I do.”
7. “If you have to poop at a party, but you’re embarrassed because you’re going to stink up the bathroom, just do what I do. Lock the door, sit down, get all of the pee out first. And then, once all the pee is done, poop, flush, boom! You minimize the amount of time that the poop’s touching the air. Because if you poop first, it takes you longer to pee and then you’re peeing on top of it, stirring up the poop particles, create a cloud, goes out, then everyone at the party will know that you pooped. Just trust me, it’s science.”
8. “Learn to pray. It’s easy, and it is so good for your soul.”
9. “Nobody is perfect. People will tell you that you are perfect just the way that you are, you are not! You are imperfect. You always will be, but there is a powerful force that designed you that way, and if you are willing to accept that, you will have grace. And grace is a gift. Like the freedom that we enjoy in this country, that grace was paid for with somebody else’s blood. Do not forget that. Don’t take that for granted.”
First, it’s an effective proclamation of the kerygma (the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus and their saving significance) for a modern secular world that doesn’t believe in sin or God but generally has a spiritual sense and who can be brought to understand the narrative of sin and redemption by analogy if you avoid using those words, which sound like alienating jargon to the unchurched.
Interestingly, in many of the comments I read on You Tube, even the atheists and agnostics are saying they respect his courage for talking about his beliefs and the respectful and humble way he did so without being a jerk. Those comments more than anything suggest that his speech was effective.
Pratt’s delivery is, of course, perfectly timed. The rhythm of the rules works. He says something funny, gets a laugh, says something profound, makes you think. Then says another funny thing. The audience is never quite sure what he’s going to say next or whether to take his declarations seriously. Oh we know that when he says he believes God is real that he’s speaking from the heart, but he never quite takes himself so seriously that his audience feels like it’s an attack. They swallow it down eagerly waiting for the next joke. Above all, I admire the masterful way he builds from statements that everyone believes to statements that are potentially very challenging:
1. First, start with advice everyone can appreciate: Breathe. It’s obvious, uncontroversial: if you don’t breathe you will die. That’s science. And yet it’s timely and topical, it also plays into the standard advice given to actors and to accepters at award shows. And it’s got the pop culture mindfulness cachet too. Breathing is the first step in mindfulness. It’s also the first step in many prayer traditions. he’s setting the stage for later advice that might be a little more hard to swallow by beginning with one that everyone will accept. He’s building trust, making you laugh a little bit with the obvious cliche. And yet while it’s obvious, it’s also a little unexpected, that makes it funny. And there’s nothing like humor to put people into a mood to trust the speaker and listen to his advice.
2. Next, in a parallel statement, he moves on to something a little more challenging, but something that again almost everyone can accept: “You have a soul, be careful with it.”
I love the implication: your soul is precious, it’s worth care, but also the implication that if you are not careful it can be hurt.
And here he proposes, indirectly, a basic understanding of sin, sin is when your soul is hurt. Everyone except the most diehard materialists can get on board here and even most of them can accept the soul as some kind of common metaphorical way of speaking. This is the common denominator linking people of faith the the spiritual but not religious crowd. And the advice is sound: be good to yourself, don’t do anything that will harm the invisible spiritual part of you. We can all accept that this is a bit of pithy, homely advice to live by.
3. Then he follows those rules up with yet another basic rule that everyone easily accepts, which is really a restatement of the Golden Rule, also of Wheaton’s Law: don’t be a turd. Also, it’s really an elaboration of rule 2. This is how you hurt your soul: by being a turd. Unlike the first two it’s got a little more concrete elaboration: essentially, use your gifts, both physical and mental, to help others and not to harm them.
Moreover, it sets up the poop story in #7— now he’s already mentioned poop in a serious context, that makes #7 a more natural part of the list— and it also sets up the clencher in #9 about being imperfect, because if we are honest with ourselves we know that we’ve all broken this rule at some point. Who hasn’t at some point used their gifts as weapons against someone who is weaker? Pratt calls to the angels of our better natures and invites us to be protectors and influencers, both buzzwords, feeding into the cultural moment, using the vocabulary his audience is most likely to use about good behavior/bad behavior. Don’t be a bully: it’s a trending topic on social media.
4. Then he undercuts this series of serious rules with something that seems random and humorous and totally in character: advice about how to give medicine to a dog. But, while it’s a humorous digression and juxtaposition, it’s also very meta. He’s also telling you exactly what he’s doing in his speech. If you want to get a dog to eat medicine, hide it in something he wants to wolf down. If you want to proclaim the Gospel of Christ to those who are hostile to it, hide it in the form of something they want to consume: a humorous list of self-help advice that is by and large what people already want to hear from a guy they are disposed to listen to because they like him, he amuses them and doesn’t irritate them in any way.
It’s totally meta, but in a way that blends seamlessly into the style of the whole list. And has some of the same earthiness as the poop advice. (And dude, did he just call the whole audience dogs?)
5. Earn it. To me this sounds like popular-culture Hollywood-speak, but really goes back to #2, caring for the soul, and #3 the golden rule: do good deeds, be of service, reach out to those in pain. This is how you care for your soul, this is how to not be a turd. But also, this is how you earn real respect, this is how you become a good person. Earn the respect and adulation you receive by being of service, helping people in pain.
6. Now that we’re all in agreement about having a soul, needing to care for that soul, doing unto others, helping those who are in pain, we’ve bought in, he’s earned some trust… then he drops the bomb: five short, declarative statements: “God is real. God loves you, God wants the best for you. Believe that, I do.” This is powerful, succinct proclamation of faith.
Going along with Pratt’s rules, we’ve agreed that we want the best for others, we want to do good to others, he’s shown us what love looks like to him and now he’s giving us the good news. And asking us to maybe put some of the goodwill we’ve directed at him, the trust we have in him, towards God. He’s built a bridge of trust and is inviting his audience to consider the proposition that this good advice flows from a source and that source is worth considering.
7. And then with the long poop story he gives us his back-handed apology for doing the supremely uncool thing of mentioning God. The very awkwardness and uncomfortableness of the poop story in Rule #7, which many commenters have noted, is a brilliant rhetorical move. Notice again what Rule #6 is. He just told the audience at an award show that God is real and God loves them. In Hollywood that kind of earnest declaration is almost the exact equivalent of dropping a turd at a party. It’s a major social faux pas to talk earnestly about faith, especially at a glittering award show.
And yet Pratt does drop that bomb. So what does he do by way of an indirect apology for the potential offense? He follows it up with funny instructions for getting rid of a stink. Instructions that go on too long and are gross, but now people are a bit distracted from the fact that he just mentioned God. They are instead laughing at the awkwardness of poop instead of the awkwardness of talking about his faith in a way that leaves him vulnerable. He’s just made himself as vulnerable and open to public humiliation as the guy in his parable who left a stink in the bathroom at the party. But we like Pratt, he’s funny, he makes us laugh, he’s giving us the kind of advice that we want to hear. Therefore we want to not make a big deal out of the stink and get offended, because we can see he’s trying very hard not to be offensive. He’s the kind of guy who goes to ridiculous lengths to avoid making a stink. And indirectly maybe he’s inviting us to consider that just as we think poop is socially unacceptable and yet it is sometimes unavoidable and the best we can do is to minimize other people’s discomfort, maybe for him talking about God is equally unavoidable, just a natural part of who he is. And maybe we should get over our discomfort at having people talk about God in public. Pratt brilliantly rides on the social phenomenon of Poopouri commercials, which make so much of how awkward fecal smells are, and make them embarrassingly funny and also run on too long and you really want to just skip them and pretend they didn’t happen. And yet you find yourself quoting them anyway. The embarrassing things is that most people do like to laugh at poop jokes, that’s why they’re so ubiquitous.
8. But now that he’s cleared the room of the stink, so to speak, Pratt comes back to God and the soul. If God is real and you accept that, then the natural response should be prayer. He’s called people to belief, now he gives them an action item for the belief in God that he’s just called them to. Ok, so I believe God is real and he loves me, now what? Now pray, says Pratt. And he’s reassuring. It’s easy. He’s not asking you to do something hard. It’s not a trick. Again, short, sweet declarative sentences. He drops his advice and then moves on to the next rule before it makes anyone too uncomfortable.
9. Finally, the real meat. He never mentions Jesus, but we all know that’s who he means, the one who shed blood to give us grace and heal our imperfections. And notice how he’s built up to the idea that we aren’t perfect. We know are capable of using strength and smarts to hurt and bully. We are capable of stinking up the room. We fail to do good. We fail to care for our souls. He’s given everyone a good working understanding of sin. Sin is our imperfections and our failures to live up to our own ideals. And he works in the idea of original sin: we are all imperfect, nobody is perfect. And when the Hollywood line, “You’re perfect, don’t ever change” is fed to us we should see it for what it is, a lie, a stinking turd of a lie. But he couches it in secular language, using terminology that jumps from the pages of self-help articles and books.
And in the end he give us a good working analogy for redemption. Grace is the answer to sin and imperfection, it’s the hope at the bottom of Pandora’s jar. And it’s an American truism that freedom is bought with blood. You don’t even have to be a patriot to believe that. You can look to the civil rights movement, to any radical freedom movement, freedom isn’t cheap, it’s bought with blood. And if that’s true in the political realm, it’s true in the spiritual realm. We’re back to seeing the spiritual and physical in parallel.
And in the end, CNN’s response is to call Pratt “the ultimate good guy.”