House of Cards and the ‘Old Testament’ God
The popular Netflix series tackles some eternal theological questions in Season Three.
House of Cards, now in its third season on Netflix, is a show that pulls no punches when it comes to examining the seedy underbelly of politics and American culture. The popular dramatic series is dark. It is dangerous. And it is not for children.
Because we live in an age where the worst thing a person can do to another human being is offer up any “spoilers” before they’ve had a chance to binge-watch their favorite program, I will refrain from giving away any major plot points. My wife and I have already finished Season Three and can assure those who will come after us that they are in for a wild ride.
But if you are a fan of House of Cards, you could have guessed that yourself.
Whether or not you watch the show, there was a key emotional moment in Episode 4 (“Chapter 30”) that touched upon a theological issue that all of us can identify with.
Frank Underwood — the ruthless, vindictive, power-mad protagonist played flawlessly by Kevin Spacey — attends the funeral of three fallen soldiers and listens to a moving graveside sermon delivered by a local priest. The somber homily connects Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22 with God’s own sacrifice of His Son in John 3, and these with the soldiers’ sacrificing their lives for their country. The words of the priest stir something in Underwood and so later that evening he stops by the parish to ask some questions about justice, sacrifice and power.
He and the priest have what turns out to be a fairly deep, thoughtful conversation about God. Underwood voices many of the nagging questions many people have at one point or another in their lives about why Jesus lived the sacrificial life he did, how to reconcile the seemingly “angry” God of the Old Testament with the laid-back deity in the New Testament, and how to apply Biblical principles written thousands of years ago to our modern world.
Frank Underwood says:
Why didn’t Jesus fight? Why didn’t he crush his enemies? I understand the Old Testament God . . . who ruled through fear and absolute power . . . but not him [pointing toward an icon of Christ hanging on the wall of the church].
The priest initially responds:
I’ve often asked myself the same questions. I don’t know why God handled everything the way that He did. What I do know is what Christ taught us: we are told to love God and love each other. Jesus loved the Romans . . . ‘forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ He said that.
The priest continues:
Remember, there is no such thing as absolute power on humanity’s side of the equation. Any power we get is from Him and, in turn, we use it to serve others.
You aren’t special, Frank, and you certainly better not be pursuing power for your own sake. You weren’t chosen . . . only Jesus was.
Love and service and sacrifice for the good of others. That is our task.
Frank Underwood, after asking for a moment to himself to contemplate the priest’s message, looks defiantly up at the statue of Jesus and says that he rejects Christ’s offer because he sees it as weak and silly. Frank prefers the power-first-and-last “Old Testament God,” but only because he has molded Yahweh into his own perverted image. Like so many of us on a daily basis, Frank has created one straw-man version of God to like and one to hate, based entirely on his own craving for power and control.
Frank thinks he knows best. This is pride, pure and simple.
For an edgy, critically-applauded dramatic series that uses lies, intrigue and corruption as the catalysts to advance every major aspect of the narrative, this was a surprisingly meditative scene — not quite Augustine or N.T Wright, but given how theologically meager popular television usually is, I’ll take it.