Student showcase 1: The Devil’s in the Detail

As in previous years, we are taking time throughout December to showcase some of the wonderful work done by our students in Auckland TheoRel. Starting us off today is Brittany Jacobsen, who took our most popular course, The Bible in Popular Culture (THEOREL 101G).  Brittany hails from Auckland and is working towards a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Classics and Anthropology. Her future plans include studying Classics at postgraduate level, hopefully at a University in either Athens or London. She took THEOREL 101G because it sounded so interesting and reassures me that it has been one of the best courses that she has taken so far in her degree (we aim to please). So read on and enjoy Brittany’s essay, which looks at the biblical figure of Satan, as represented in that most charismatic of TV anti-heroes, Lucifer Morningstar.

lucifer 1

Is Lucifer Really Satan? Satan in Popular Culture

By Brittany Jacobsen

Throughout history, Satan  has traditionally been portrayed in theological and cultural discourses as the embodiment of all evil (De La Torre & Hernández, 2011, p.11). This portrayal has its roots in the Bible’s characterisation of Satan (Wray & Mobley, 2005, p.xiii). Yet Satan’s biblical portrayal is vague and contradictory (Wyman, 2016, p.4). And, when Lucifer Morningstar appears in FOX’s Lucifer (Kapinos, 2016-present) claiming that he is Satan, he subverts the Bible’s various depictions of this character in a number of ways. For, this popular culture afterlife presents a humanized portrayal of Satan – a Satan for the 21st-century. To do this, Lucifer fills in the gaps in biblical depictions of Satan – specifically, who Satan is and what he is like, his relationship with God, and his thoughts about his reputation as a tempter and a symbol of evil. Thus, Lucifer’s portrayal, although biblical in origin, extends well beyond the biblical traditions.

This essay will therefore compare the biblical portrayal of Satan with Lucifer’s using two methods for studying popular culture – the ‘world in the text’ and the ‘world behind the text’.  The ‘world in the text’ will involve discussing how Lucifer fills said biblical gaps, highlighting any similarities and differences between these portrayals. I suggest that there is a connection between the TV programme’s altered portrayal of Satan in Lucifer Morningstar and its 21st-century context – the ‘world behind the text’. That is, this particular biblical afterlife reflects 21st-century understandings of Satan, and highlights the rise of the anti-hero as a cultural trope.

In the world of Lucifer, Satan (aka Lucifer Morningstar) is the main character of the TV series, and so, he gains a personality, which contributes to his humanization. The show’s premise is that Lucifer is a fallen angel condemned by God to rule over Hell. The part is played by British actor Tom Ellis, who brings a great deal of charisma to this role. This is seen, for example, when Lucifer draws out other characters’ hidden desires; as we watch him do this, there is always a close-up of his face. The audience is thus compelled to look at Ellis’ ruggedly handsome face, his  cheeky smile, and sparkling eyes. We cannot look away. With individuals in the show paralleling our reaction, we understand this is the intended effect. With this face then, Satan becomes irresistible.

Lucy horns
Lucifer Morningstar, played by actor Tom Ellis

This idea of Satan having irresistible charm is not voiced in the Bible. Indeed, biblical passages mention little about who Satan is (Wray & Mobley, 2005, p.1), let alone giving him a charismatic personality (Wyman, 2016, pp.3-4). This has led to later Christian traditions creating afterlives for Satan, which are not necessarily evoked explicitly in the Bible itself (De La Torre & Hernández, 2011, pp.81-82).

The TV show Lucifer also creates a new afterlife for Satan, one which locates this figure within a 21st-century context. Satan, as Lucifer Morningstar, is humanized by a vibrant personality, and thus fits the contemporary definition of an anti-hero – “a clearly – or even, severely – morally flawed main character whom the spectator is nonetheless encouraged to feel with, like and root for” (Vaage, 2016, p.xvi). Traditional assumptions made about Satan being the embodiment of all evil (De La Torre & Hernández, 2011, p.11) shape the world behind Lucifer, identifying our anti-hero as ‘morally flawed’. This is captured in the show when Lucifer is told by another character to “stop caring, you’re the Devil”. Compassion, or ‘caring’, is considered a moral virtue, and so does not fit with the traditional portrayal of Satan/Lucifer as evil. Yet in the TV show, we are offered a much more human, and relatable Satan, which ‘encourage[s] [us] to feel with, like and root for’ him (Vaage, 2016, p.xvi). With his charisma, the audience is drawn to Lucifer, and so in almost every scene he appears, he remains in the frame. This emphasizes that he is the focus of our attention, and so we become increasingly invested in him – he becomes our ‘anti-hero’, an increasingly popular figure within contemporary pop culture (Vaage, 2016, p.90).

Lucy gif

The Bible also does not offer a clear explanation of Satan’s relationship with God. Satan is depicted in the Old Testament as being employed by God to test human faith (Job 1-2). However, in contrast to the New Testament (see (Luke 10:18; cf. Revelation 12:1-6;  Acts 5:3), there is no mention of Satan being God’s rival (Telford, 2014, p.91), or an explicit embodiment of evil. Thus, while one can agree that in the Bible God and Satan have a relationship, this relationship is not consistent across the two testaments (Wray & Mobley, 2005, p.1). Such inconsistency therefore offers us a biblical ‘gap’ around Satan’s character.

Lucifer fills this gap by making it explicit that the relationship between God and Satan is that of father and son. Lucifer repeatedly refers to God as “Dad” or “Father”, leaving us with no doubt about this. That this is their chosen relationship is significant in the show’s world. It implies that Satan’s biblical fall from heaven (Luke 10:18; cf. Revelation 12:1-6), and later adversarial role (Acts 5:3), were the result of childhood rebellion. This contributes to Lucifer’s humanized portrayal of Satan. His fall is said to be the result of “one of [God’s] children … act[ing] out”. The choice of describing this fall as “act[ing] out” against a parent implies that Satan is a rebellious child. This makes him appear more human because the audience can relate to this, perhaps having gone through similar stages of rebellion themselves. Therefore, because of this gap-filling, we gain a humanized portrayal of Satan.

Lucy 2

Satan is also a tempter. He is portrayed like this in both the Bible (Wyman, 2016, p.4) and Lucifer. In the Bible, this is fundamental to his character (cf. Job 1-2; Matthew 4:1-11). An important story about Satan, the temptation of Jesus, shows this most clearly (Wray & Mobley, 2005, p.120). Here, Jesus is taken “to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). Such an explicit statement linking Satan with performing temptation leaves no doubt that this is his role.

Hans Memling der Hölle
Hans Memling, Die Hölle (c. 1485)

Furthermore, this role has also contributed to Satan being presented as the embodiment of all evil (Wray & Mobley, 2005, p.1). However, the connotations of the word ‘evil’ suggest someone who enjoys their depraved actions, similar to what we see in medieval depictions of the ‘evil’ Satan (De La Torre & Hernández, 2011, p.17). Yet, the Bible does not tell us about Satan’s thoughts or motivations about his role as tempter – sometimes it appears as though he is just doing his job, and with divine approval (Job 1-2). Thus, we see another biblical gap around Satan’s character.

Lucifer, in comparison, tells us Satan’s thoughts about being a tempter. The show acknowledges that Satan has this previous biblical role (Telford, 2014, p.90), however, it is presented as humanity’s excuse for human wrongdoing: as Lucifer complains, humans blame their own badness on him, claiming ‘the devil made me do it’. In a number of episodes, we are given insights into Lucifer’s thoughts on being a tempter. He sees himself as ‘vilified’, asking, ‘Why do they blame me for all their little failings as if I’d spent my days sitting on their shoulder forcing them to commit acts they’d otherwise find repulsive?’ Lucifer’s emotional response here is important because it again makes him appear more human, more relatable.

Lucy gif cheers

By filling the various biblical gaps in ways that humanize Satan, the TV character of Lucifer is influenced by 21st-century understandings of Satan as a figure of evil (Telford, 2014, p.103). In the 21st-century, Satan is no longer “the ultimate source of evil” (Wyman, 2016, p.14). The secularization of modern society has replaced him with secular figures of evil, human satanic figures (See Porter, 2017) – corrupt politicians and world leaders, war criminals, terrorists, unethical multinational companies . As a result, Satan has lost his mystical “power” in the minds of his 21st-century audience (Wyman, 2016, p. 15). Humanizing Satan in Lucifer reflects this loss because it suggests that he is now understood as one of us, rather than a supernatural entity. If evil is to be found, then it is to be found among the human community here on earth, rather than in a fallen angel or supernatural being. There is thus a connection between Lucifer’s altered portrayal and the world behind the text, our 21st-century context.

It is clear then, that Lucifer provides an altered portrayal of the biblical character Satan. In filling the specific biblical gaps of who Satan is and what he is like, his relationship with God, and his thoughts on being a tempter, Satan’s portrayal goes from vague to humanized. Therefore, Lucifer has “reflect[ed] the culture in which [it was] produced” (Telford, 2014, p.89). As we have seen, the humanization of Satan is the product of the 21st-century understandings of this figure, his relationship with evil, and the rise of the anti-hero.

Lucy flames

Reference list

All biblical citations are taken from the NRSV

De La Torre, M. A., & Hernández, A. (2011). The Quest for the Historical Satan. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Kapinos, Tom (Creator). (2016-present). Lucifer, [Television show]. United States: FOX.

Porter, A. L. (2017). Satanic Humans: Using Satanic Tropes To Guide And Misguide The Audience. Journal of Religion & Film, 21(1), 1-33.

Telford, W. R. (2014). “Speak of the Devil”: The Portrayal of Satan in the Christ Film. In E. S. Christianson & C. H. Partridge (Eds), The Lure of the Darkside: Satan and Western Demonology in Popular Culture (pp. 89-104).

Vaage, M. B. (2016). The Antihero in American Television. New York and London: Routledge.

Wray, T. J., & Mobley, G. (2005). The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil’s Biblical Roots. New York and Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wyman, K. J. (2016). The Devil We Already Know: Medieval Representations of a Powerless Satan in Modern American Cinema. Journal of Religion & Film, 8(3), Article 7, 1-19.

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