The Devil Goes Prime Time

The question of the existence of the devil is a notoriously difficult theological problem. On the one hand, as Carl Braaten has observed, “True Christianity is stuck with the Devil, like it or not” (“Powers in Conflict: Christ and the Devil,” in Sin, Death, and the Devil, ed. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 96). The devil is a recurring character in the narrative of Scripture. He is described in the New Testament as, among other things, the “prince of this world” (John 12:31), as one who “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8), and as “the strong man” whose house Jesus has come to plunder (Mark 3:27). To excise all of the references to the devil from Scripture would leave many holes in the pages of our Bibles.

The images of gaping holes in our Bibles where the devil appears may be an apt one, as to ascribe “existence” to the devil creates some serious metaphysical difficulties. In a cleverly employed turn of phrase, while commenting on the Gospel of Matthew’s account of the temptation narrative, Stanley Hauerwas writes, “That is why the devil is at once crafty but self-destructively mad, for the devil cannot help but be angry, recognizing as he must that he does not exist.” (Matthew, (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), 51). At this point, Hauerwas is alluding to the understanding of the classical Christian theological tradition, under the influence of Augustine, that evil must be understood as the privation of the good. To ascribe “existence” to evil is to posit an untenable metaphysical dualism which fails to do justice to the Christian doctrine of God and the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (“creation out of nothing”). Hauerwas’s quote reflects this theological tension between acknowledging the devil’s agency in the biblically-shaped imagination, while at the same time recognizing that the devil cannot simply be said to “exist” in the same way that God, and derivatively human beings, exist. Robert Jenson, operating with a similar set of theological and metaphysical convictions, puts it this way, “the only description possible of the devil is a description of what is the matter with him. The only predicates of the devil are his deficiencies, for the devil is the angel who refuses to be one” (Introduction to Sin, Death, and the Devil, 3).

All of the preceding stands as a preamble to a few observations about Fox’s new television series Lucifer. The general premise of Lucifer appears to be that the devil has abdicated his rule of hell in order to take up residence in Los Angeles where he now runs a night club and goes by the name of “Lucifer Morningstar.” After the murder of a pop-singer, whom he had helped in the past, Lucifer is driven by the desire to track down and punish the murderer. This leads him to form a partnership with an ostracized female detective, which will presumably endure over the course of the series. During the first episode, Lucifer demonstrates an immunity to physical assaults and an ability to elicit from people confessions of their deepest urges and desires.

First, let it be said that anyone who turns into a television show about the devil expecting to see a strictly biblically-informed presentation, if such a thing is even possible, should carefully re-examine their motives. However, as a quick aside connected with the theme of biblical disparity, it should be noted that while the series takes up the motif that Satan reigns over hell exacting punishment upon the reprobate, there is actually no biblical warrant for this culturally-ingrained idea. From a theological perspective, the series runs into the problem of portraying the peculiar mode of the devil’s existence described in the opening paragraphs of this post. While there is a certain smarminess that characterizes Lucifer in the television series, he is not a completely unlikable character. While it might be tempting to attribute the character’s allure to our own fallenness, I think it is much more likely that is the presence of some redeeming qualities (ie., loyalty, compassion, a sense of justice, etc.) that helps to render Lucifer as a sympathetic character. At this point the series runs into difficulties resembling those which have confronted previous attempts to portray the devil in works of literature and within the dramatic arts. Namely how does one portray a character whose existence is sheer negativity and is therefore completely parasitic upon the good? For if a devil-figure begins to demonstrate positive virtues, then it would seem as if the figure is no longer representative of the devil. But then the question arises as to whether the depiction of such a character is even possible? Or are literary and cinematic depictions destined to ascribe some form of virtue or good to the devil with the result that the devil threatens to become a heroic figure or even more interesting than God Himself? Some would argue that Milton falls victim to something this phenomenon in his portrayal of Lucifer in Paradise Lost.

There are other theological questions the show raises.  Perhaps more important, however, are the questions it raises for those who to desire to exegete contemporary culture in the light of faith. Such a discerning viewer would do well to ask questions along the following lines:  What trends or sensibilities are reflected in Hollywood’s decision to make a show on this topic at this time? How does the show resonate, or fail to resonate, with the viewing public and why? What does that reaction tell us about the Zeitgeist of contemporary North American culture?

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