Portrait of Alpha: Francis Underwood


I am loving House of Cards, Netflix's original series starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. Asian American Christian men can learn a lot about game from Spacey's character, Francis Underwood, a prototypical Alpha male.

The guy is a ruthless sociopath who lies, cheats, and manipulates his way into power. If you have experience with TV and movies, you know there's nothing new here. But then, there's nothing new about Alpha males either. 

What is particularly enjoyable is how good Underwood is at what he does. He brings an elegance and beauty to power-mongering. I admire his command of relationships the way I admire Stephen Curry's command of the Warriors' offense. They are smooth, creative, and delightful to watch in action.

What Christian principles of masculinity can we learn from a fictionalized politician?

Let's compare Francis Underwood's quotes with Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4.

1) End useless pain

Francis Underwood:There are two kinds of pain. The sort of pain that makes you strong or useless pain. The sort of pain that's only suffering. I have no patience for useless things. 

Those words are spoken to the camera during the opening scene of Episode 1 when Underwood and his secret service bodyguard leave his apartment and find a dog who has just been hit by a car. The dog whimpers in pain throughout Underwood's monologue until you see him twist something off camera and then there is silence. 

It takes courage to end useless pain. It is unpleasant and feels cruel. But putting the animal out of its misery is one of the most compassionate things Underwood does throughout the series. You can suffer for doing what is good and right and that pain has a purpose. But to suffer for doing what is wrong, evil, or meaningless does nothing. 

Break its neck. Let it die. End it. 

In John 4, Jesus chooses to enter Samaritan The friction between the Samaritans and Jews was a result of the Israelite law. It began as a consequence of intermarriage and later became a matter of elitism in both religious and cultural differences. The pain was useless. There was no purpose. Jesus ended it.

The law crippled us because of sin. Apart from God, our pain is useless. Our suffering has no purpose. Then God stepped in and Jesus' death ended us. It put us to death so we could start life over again. In Christ, pain has a purpose but we still live with meaningless pain. You can suffer from doing good or suffer from doing evil, but either way you will suffer. Choose the pain that has meaning. End the pain that does not.

If you're in an abusive relationship, end it. If you wrestle with an addiction that makes you weaker, end it. If you've got a program, event, or group that's crippled and whimpering in pain, end it. 

2) Tease not appease

Underwood has an affair with a journalist, Zoe Barnes. After ignoring her calls and texts for weeks, he invites her to a White House bill signing. Here's a snippet of their conversation in the hall afterwards. (The writing in House of Cards is quite good; Beau Willimon is the head guy and David Fincher oversaw much of it, some of it reminds me of his work in The Social Network)

Zoe Barnes: Am I only going to see you at bill signings? I haven't heard from you in three weeks.
Francis Underwood: Insecurity bores me.

After Barnes' initial complaint, most boyfriends would be quick to either apologize or change the subject. Not Francis.  His reply is curt, witty, evasive, and caustic. He doesn't address her concerns in any way. He calls her out on her neediness. And he indicates he has little patience for mind games. Francis is a jerk. 

Jesus is not a jerk but he is just as curt, witty, evasive, and not caustic but pointed. In Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman, he initiates the conversation out of physical thirst. He is neither desperate or helpless but strategic. He is evasive in responding to her questions. He tells her she has a far greater need than she is aware of. And he hints that he can meet the deeper thirst she longs for. Lastly, He calls her out on her neediness - her four previous husbands. But because he's not a jerk, he then delivers. 

3) Pursue not pedestalize 

This is my favorite scene thus far in the series. During Episode 6, Claire visits her and Francis' former secret service bodyguard who is dying of cancer and receives a deathbed profession of love.

Bodyguard Steve: I hate your husband.
Claire Underwood: A lot of people hate my husband.
Bodyguard Steve: For the past 8 years, I watched over him but it wasn't him I was watching. Jesus what I would give. . . 
<after a long pause, where she looks away, opens her mouth slowly, and then this>
Claire Underwood: You know what Francis said to me when he proposed, I remember his exact words. He said, 

"Claire, if all you want is happiness, say no. I'm not going to give a couple of kids, and count the days until retirement. I promise you freedom from that. I promise you'll never be bored." 

You know he was the only man, and there were a lot of others who proposed, he was the only one who understood me. He didn't put me on some pedestal. He knew I didn't want to be adore or coddled, so he took my hand and put on a ring on it because he knew I'd say yes. He's a man who knows how to take what he wants. You told me your truth and now you know mine. 

At that point, she does something that solidifies her bid for entry into the Alpha female hall of fame. Francis and Claire are THE power couple. Women don't want to be pedestalized. Pedestalization is objectification. And elevating someone's status inappropriately is idolatry. Claire didn't want to be another man's idol. That's the temptation of the male heart - to make women an idol. Jesus nor Francis fall into that temptation. Francis was looking for a partner to pursue his plan of world White House domination. Jesus was looking for a partner to reach a Samaritan town with the good news of salvation. They found what they were looking for and they took it.

LORD, help me live fully in this kind of courage and conviction.

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