I was about seven episodes into House of Cards season one, a good year before it became fashionable to use the show’s title as a hashtag. An early adopter friend told me about how excellent the story was, how well acted it was, how well conceived it was, how it was a modern day Macbeth.
I’m a sucker for Shakespeare, so I dove in; and I’m not a television watcher. I’d rather go for a walk then have my life sucked dry by a blinking screen. But I fell in, hard. The pace of the story, the Shakespearean asides, the “couples smoke” at the window each night. Then, there was episode seven, or was it six? You know, the one where Kevin Spacey undresses Kate Mara and serves her with oral sex.
I was done.
Call me old fashioned, or just old, I don’t care; but, my tastes have changed. Having three beautiful pixie-daughters running around speeds that change. G.K. Chesterton once remarked how sin makes us old–not mature per se, just old with a dash of pop-sophistication. At one point, that was true of me: the sophisticated snob, old and decrepit, wheezing my delight at the beautiful macabre.
But my daughters have retaught me delight, simplicity and a rustic kind of taste. One that revels in a beauty and elegance that cares less for how a media expression “redeems culture,” and cares more about how my aesthetic experiences enhance my Divine love affair.
When I was younger I relished the rapture of life—the experience of it all. I thought “beauty” was everywhere. But my perspective was due in large part to my arrogance and selfishness. My hedonism was ravenous. Whether it was infatuation with a girl or with nature or with cultural expressions–like a movie or album, I drank deep the “beauty” I saw, and the beauty I thought I experienced. But what I thought was “beauty” was really sensual satisfaction, surface aesthetics devoid of the sublime.
Though I could sense the childlike innocence that lay behind the existential, it did not penetrate my soul. I regarded “beauty” as one regards pre-cut flowers at the supermarket; they’re pretty, arranged well and available at my whim. Only the transaction separates me from consuming the flowers.
I lived detached from innocence much the same way I lived detached from the flowers. My mind ascended to the idea that innocence, that true beauty, that God lay behind nature and was somewhere buried behind each girl I encountered, yet my life failed to represent this notion. I lived like I had purchased beauty at the supermarket.
It’s bizarre to me how life thrusts us into innocence—through the birth canal and into our mother’s arms—only to have it methodically stripped away. But then, we participate in the stripping. Indeed, I became a dragon, a brute beast, screaming for “beauty” and guilty pleasures all in the name of adult freedom, sophistication, and the redeeming elements of the “whatever.”
My “tastes” in culture, or aesthetic experiences, need to be stewarded by a baptized imagination that perceives the world through the kaleidoscope of a holy brilliance. And that’s what I see running around my house–little scallywags shimmering in their kaleidoscopic brilliance. They scream to God when they see the sunset, “Do it again, God!” And he does.
For seven months now, I’ve lived in Oxford, England–a hermit on the English countryside. I think God placed my family here to teach me, once more, the rustic life of delight. I think he’s showing me how an otherly kind of beauty matters, that form and content matter, that if I want to know him I must continue to grow young.
Am I judging those of you still watching and hashtagging House of Cards? No. Well, maybe those of you hashtagging it. I mean, c’mon. Really?
All I’m doing, really, is writing myself a little reminder. That excellent elements of craft do not make something beautiful, though they may, arguably, make it a form of art. That I am not placed here to validate all forms of art, especially in the name of “redeeming culture.” I’m here, like C.S. Lewis was, to find where all the beauty came from.
And when I find it, I scream to the sky, “Do it again, God!” And he does. The sky lights up with his brilliance, and so do I.
Timothy Willard is the author of five books, including Longing For More: Daily Reflections on Finding God in the Rhythms of Life and the forthcoming The Life-Giving Adventure of Chasing Beauty (Eerdmans, 2019). He has collaborated on over 20 books and has written, consulted and served as spiritual director for organizations such as Chick-fil-A, Catalyst, Q Ideas and Praxis Labs. When he’s not riding the trails in the Appalachian mountains you can find him by the fire with his three daughters and his wife making up stories about Tom the back yard badger. He lives somewhere in the south Charlotte woods.