Thursday, September 29, 2016

old square toes: sympathy for the devil

It looks like studio executives at Fox have decided to give the devil his due, at least for one more year.

Now in its second season, the TV show “Lucifer” builds its premise around an idea originally presented in “The Sandman,” an award-winning comic book by Neil Gaiman. In the TV show, as in the comic, the devil has grown tired of overseeing the torments of the damned. He has abandoned the war with heaven, moved to California, and opened a nightclub. In order to hang a weekly series around this concept with Lucifer as the main character,  20th Century Fox made it a police show.

I first heard of the show mid-season last year, when I read that the American Family Association and its affiliated web site One Million Moms had objected. I object too, but not that the show has sown “spiritual confusion,” as the association claims. My concern is that the show has been squandering a great idea. I mean, a police procedural? Really?

In “The Sandman,” Lucifer marked his abdication by throwing the damned out of hell along with their tormentors. The next time we see him, he is lounging on a beach in Perth, Australia, admiring the sunset. Later, in the penultimate story arc to the comic, we find him running his nightclub and playing Cole Porter tunes on the piano.

Try and tell me that you don't find that idea at least a little amusing.

When we first read “Seasons of Mist,” my best friend and I spent days imagining other career paths the devil could have opted for. Plenty of possibilities suggested themselves. Studio engineer or record producer for a major record label. President of a fantasy roleplaying game company.

For a while we even pictured him as the managing editor of a local newspaper who would enjoy playing folk music on his acoustic guitar during open mike nights at the local coffee house. As a bonus, he would be oblivious to the bar fights that unfailingly would break out during his set.

It wouldn't matter whether he sang “Imagine” and “Give Peace a Chance,” or “Oh My Darling Clementine”; conflict was inevitable. The devil might be tired of running hell, but we were less optimistic than Gaiman about his ability to quit being who he is, no matter how hard he tried.

One thing we were sure of, though: Lucifer Morningstar would never seek political office. There are some depths even the devil won't sink to.

Amusing as all of this may be, and as fascinating a story as it can be in the hands of a talented writer, none of this exactly matches the traditional story of the devil as understood in popular culture. And that is without doubt the source of some of the opprobrium the American Family Association has directed at the show.

In traditional understanding, Lucifer was first in the order of creation. Of all beings, he was second only to God in power and majesty. He was captain of the other angels, the light-bearer and leader of worship in heaven. He was proud, and he was beautiful. There was none like him.

When Lucifer discovered that God intended to create humanity, and to elevate humans to a place of honor higher than the angels themselves, it was too much to take. He disagreed with God so sharply that he actually rebelled, intending to depose the Almighty and take the throne from him. Such was his beauty and magnificence that fully a third of the other angels joined him.

The rebellion went the only way it could. A match would have had greater success extinguishing a hurricane than Lucifer had against God. The angel was cast into hell, and all his followers fell with him.

Since then, Lucifer has been Satan, the Adversary. The very avatar of evil, he has continued to war with heaven, determined to mar Creation as thoroughly as possible. Christians see him as the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve to disobedience in the Garden of Eden, and often perceive his hand in the slaughter of Hebrew infants in the time of Moses, and in the Massacre of the Innocents in the gospel of Matthew.

In the devil's war with heaven, earth is the battleground and the souls of mortals are the prize. Every soul that finds itself in hell is a victory in his campaign against God Almighty. But in the end, of course, the final victory goes to God, along with all the glory. The story ends in the book of Revelation when the devil is thrown into the lake of fire, and God makes his dwelling with humans, as he had planned all along.

As stories go, this is one of the best. Obvious themes include the majesty, sovereignty and glory of God; the dangers of arrogance and pride in one's position; and the folly of resisting God's purposes and will. By incarnating sin and evil in the person of the devil, the story presents us with a moral lesson about sin and rebellion so that his story serves as a warning to us.

Add a motivation – some people say Satan rebelled because he was jealous that God intended humanity to be higher than the angels, though I've also heard suggestions that he disagreed with God's notions of justice – and you have a character in an eternal drama who serves as a potential rebuke to our own sense of entitlement and moral absolutism.

The “Lucifer” writers have turned this into a weekly police procedural where the devil is a funny but likeable social misfit who, instead of marring Creation, helps the cops solve drive-by killings and kidnappings. Rather than opposing the will of the Almighty, his chief concern is that the officer he works with keeps rejecting his advances. It should surprise no one that a petition on the American Family Association web site to stop the show garnered a reported 134,331 signatures before the first season pilot even had aired.

There's just one problem with outrage over “Lucifer.” The story about Satan's rebellion and subsquent fall from heaven is found nowhere in Scripture. It's all told in a poem by John Milton called “Paradise Lost.”

Once we understand that, we stand to gain a lot more spiritual clarity than we ever would have lost from a simple TV show.

Copyright 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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