By Charles Hackney and Amanda MacInnis-Hackney
In 2018, after three seasons, Fox Network announced the cancellation of the television show, Lucifer. Based on the work of Neil Gaiman, the show was about Lucifer living in Los Angeles, the owner of a nightclub, and living the playboy lifestyle. Lucifer became a consultant to the LAPD, working with Chloe Decker, a no-nonsense detective, who had abandoned a career as an actress to follow in her father’s footsteps as one of L.A.’s finest. The show, similar to CW’s Supernatural, constructed its own mythos, drawing on, but heavily adapting biblical images. Lucifer, while the devil, was also still an angel, and as such, had both his angel wings (pure white) and his “devil face.” After centuries of doing his Father’s will by punishing those in hell, Lucifer had taken a vacation to L.A., abdicating his throne in hell. Lucifer, the fallen son, was pursued by his brother Amenadiel, an obedient and unfallen angel, who urged him to return to his job in hell, and the brothers were joined by their mother (the wife of God) after she broke out of her cell in hell.
While the first season, like most first seasons, had its bumps and bruises, by the third season, the mythos was established, balanced with the necessary “murder mystery of the week,” and the chemistry of the cast was built around Tom Ellis’ oozing charm in the lead role. Like all good season finales, Season Three ended on a compelling “cliff hanger,” and viewers were looking forward to finding out what would happen in the upcoming season. Instead, Fox announced that the show was canceled. Led by Tom Ellis and the other actors, fans of the show mounted a “Save Lucifer” campaign on social media, and shortly thereafter, Netflix announced that it would pick up the fourth season from Fox, with a cheeky teaser trailer that included the tagline, “He is Risen.” In May, ten episodes of Season Four dropped, and the adventures continued, with a further development of the mythos, including the introduction of Eve (as in Adam and Eve), the news of the impending birth of a half-angel, half-human baby, and the question of whether the Devil is truly as evil as history has portrayed him.
This essay is not a critique of how badly the show butchers imagery from the Bible (which it does). Nor it is a critique of the fact that the writers employ the tired trope of the church being the big bad (which they do). Nor is this a critique of the character of Eve being inconsistent and annoying (which she is). Instead, this essay will be an overview of the religious worldview at work in Season Four of Lucifer. Ultimately, Lucifer, while using Jewish and Christian religious images and stories, is more properly a testament of the zeitgeist of 21st-century North American culture, specifically the religion of the Sovereign Expressivist Self.
In his book, A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor describes changes that have taken place in our view of God, the world, and ourselves over the past five centuries. A proper presentation of Taylor’s ideas in this massive tome is far beyond the scope of this essay, so we will focus only on those specific aspects of secularization that directly connect to Season Four of Lucifer. In a meandering, zig-zagging process (that Taylor argues bears little resemblance to the simplistic unidimensional “subtraction stories” told by many of the more naïve atheists, in which religion simply fades away in the light of science), the Western world erected a barrier between the natural and the supernatural. Where there once was an “enchanted” cosmos, filled with objects that are charged with meaning (divine or diabolical), there is instead a disenchanted universe, in which objects have no meaning in themselves. The fingerbone of a saint is really only a structure of calcium and organic residues. A cathedral is really only a building. In a disenchanted world, everything must be understood within the “immanent frame,” an autonomous natural order that may or may not have any connection to the divine. God may have created water, but we need not refer to God in order to understand the nature and functioning of that particular combination of hydrogen and oxygen.
This shift to the immanent frame also influenced our ideas about humanity. Human behavior, like water, is assumed to be entirely understandable in terms of natural laws, and so the good life for humans must be defined in entirely immanent terms. Taylor describes our current situation (post-1960s) as the “Age of Authenticity,” in which the inner self is taken to be the source of truth, beauty, and morality, and therefore the only legitimate grounding of the good life. Taylor refers to this position as “expressive individualism,” the idea that “each of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority” (475). The belief that the good life must be self-defined is part of the current “social imaginary,” which is a term that Taylor defines as “the ways in which [people] imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations which are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images which underlie these expectations” (171). Rather than a clearly-stated theory of human nature and the good society, a social imaginary is the collection of background assumptions, often not explicitly stated, about life, the universe, and everything that render certain ideas “obviously true” and others incomprehensible.
While the writers of Lucifer may have never read Taylor, or have heard of the term “expressive individualism,” their commitment to the “obvious” truth and goodness of the authentic self dominates the storyline of Season Four. After a brief storyline focusing on Chloe’s involvement with a rogue priest and her decision to not send Lucifer back to hell, we are introduced to Eve at the end of Episode Three. Eve has left heaven and husband because fulfilling her created nature had felt unchosen and inauthentic. “I didn’t choose Adam, I was created for him,” she complains. “Turns out, an arranged existence kind of takes the spark out of things.” This theme is repeated in subsequent episodes. “I was literally created to be someone’s wife,” she says in Episode Five. “No one ever asked me if that’s what I really wanted.”
This idea that true happiness is found in free choice rather than the fulfilment of one’s created nature fits perfectly with the social imaginary of the Age of Authenticity, but clashes with eudaimonist definitions of true happiness in which flourishing is about actualizing one’s innate capacities. As Jack London put it in his novel White Fang, “life achieves its summit when it does to the uttermost that which it was equipped to do” (113). Eve seeks out Lucifer because he has set her free to become her own person, rather than to do to the uttermost that which she was equipped to do, and at no time does any character suggest that this move might in fact be counterproductive to her pursuit of true happiness. Psychologist Barry Schwartz, in The Paradox of Choice, reviews research literature on choice and happiness, showing that the proliferation of options, casting off of constraints, and demands that we build our identities on free choice have actually made us emotionally worse off: “We get what we want, only to discover that that what we want doesn’t satisfy us to the degree that we expect… We are free to be the authors of our own lives, but we don’t know exactly what kind of lives we want to ‘write’” (221). Philip Cushman’s take on Taylor’s authentic self is to say that our attempts to create a “bounded, masterful self” have instead produced an “empty self,” lost and trying to find fulfilment in consumer products, food, drugs, celebrities, and ideologies. Eve comes to Earth seeking fulfilment and self-definition, but finds neither. She adopts one identity after another, depending on what she thinks Lucifer wants, to the point of mimicking Chloe’s dress and mannerisms in one episode. We can see how deeply embedded the show is in the modern social imaginary in the resolution of Eve’s character arc in Episode Ten. Having realized that her quest for happiness through authenticity and self-definition has backfired, making her empty and unhappy, her solution is to venture forth… to seek more authenticity and self-definition.
Eve’s grounding of happiness in unconstrained choice, rather than the fulfilment of her created nature, rests on a misconstrual of happiness, and so she misses out on happiness. In his contribution to the book Joy and Human Flourishing, Charles Mathewes points out the unchosen nature of joy. Those things that bring the greatest joy are not experienced as freely chosen, but as captivating: “Most profoundly, I cannot speak of ‘choosing’ to love my daughter or my son or my wife without misdescribing the experience I have of being drawn to them, transfixed by them, just because of who they are… Precisely because joy is so profoundly unchosen, but is a responsive commitment to what is there before us, demanding of us, it is very difficult indeed to articulate in a worldview so overwhelmed by the ideology of choice” (80). Mathewes argues that the elevation of individual choice to the greatest good has resulted in an impairment in our ability to experience joy.
Parallel to Eve’s character arc, Lucifer himself spends Season Four on a quest for his authentic self, also with nobody speaking against the possibility that Lucifer’s good life might not be best sought through unconstrained choice. Chloe’s difficulty in accepting the truth about Lucifer prompts him to connect with Eve. Eve wants Lucifer to be himself, by which she means dark, dangerous, and hedonistic. We have certainly seen those sides to Lucifer’s character, and he indulges them through sexual and violent excess. Having been reminded in Episode One that celestial beings’ physical forms are reflective of their personal self-concepts (this principle was central to the matter of Lucifer’s wings regenerating in Season Three, along with the loss and reappearance of his devil face), the more Lucifer comes to see himself as evil, the more his body alters. In Episode One, Lucifer and Dr. Linda Martin connect the return of his devil face to Lucifer having killed Pierce/Cain. This is framed in entirely expressive individualist terms, with Linda telling Lucifer that killing is against God’s rules, but not Lucifer’s, making the “important” question whether or not Lucifer sees the killing as evil.
This framing continues throughout the season. Lucifer struggles with the question of which version of himself is authentic, the hedonist who derives pleasure from hurting those he deems guilty, or the law-upholding investigative consultant who loves Chloe. Chloe’s contribution is to tell Lucifer that, if what he is doing “feels right,” then it is real. Lucifer tries to be a better man by restraining himself while capturing a criminal, but after the criminal kills a police officer, Lucifer cripples him, declaring that crushing the man’s spine feels right. By Episode Eight, Lucifer cannot maintain both selves, and breaks up with Eve, on the grounds that he doesn’t like who he is when he is with her. The important thing, again, is Lucifer’s view of himself.
This breakup helps Lucifer to realize that none of the things that have happened to him are God’s fault, but are his own. Returning again to the focus on the self, Lucifer interprets this as self-hatred (rather than something like the violation of objective standards of morality), and his physical form again alters accordingly. His angelic wings turn draconine, and in Episode Nine his entire body becomes monstrous. When Lucifer reveals the extent of his transformation, he declares, “This is who I am now.” The end of Episode Nine gives us one of the strongest “self” messages of the season. In addition to the authentic self being the source of truth and morality, the authentic self holds the power of salvation. Chloe declares that what is behind Lucifer’s self-hatred is that, deep down, he sees himself as responsible for the world’s evils. She pleads with him to stop blaming himself. What Lucifer really needs is to forgive himself. At this point we (specifically Charles, since he’s the psychologist) will exercise self-restraint and not go off on a rant about forgiveness in psychology and theology, but suffice it to say for now, forgiveness does not work that way (interested readers are directed to the works of Anthony Bash, Gregory Jones, and Miroslav Volf on forgiveness and reconciliation).
In Lucifer, it seems, forgiveness does work that way, and the single act of expressing a desire to forgive himself is enough to return Lucifer to his handsomer state. Episode Ten opens with Lucifer feeling so good about himself that we get a lovely dance number set to Kenny Loggins’ “I’m All Right.” Lucifer, connecting his condition to a dark prophecy, declares: “The world will not be destroyed because I forgave myself.” Not only does the self have the power to save the self by forgiving the self of sins committed by the self against the self, but the self has the power to save the world by saving the self by forgiving the self of sins committed… and we’ve somehow lost control of this sentence, which has transformed into a whirlwind of self-worship. But that’s okay. We forgive ourselves.
As the two of us watched Season Four of Lucifer, one of us (not saying who) jokingly proposed a drinking game in which people take a shot whenever a character begins to preach the gospel of the Sovereign Self. It was a good thing that this was only a joke; the alcohol-induced physiological damage could have been devastating.
We now look forward to the fifth (and final) season.
Dr. Charles Hackney is a social psychologist, whose current research includes Positive Psychology and Virtue Ethics. He is the author of Martial Virtues: Lessons in Wisdom, Courage, and Compassion from the World’s Greatest Warriors. In the realm of popular culture, he contributed an essay to the edited volume Mastering the Game of Thrones : essays on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. He also co-hosts the Book of Nature podcast.
Amanda MacInnis-Hackney is a PhD candidate in Theology. She is currently finishing her dissertation on Karl Barth’s lectures on the Gospel of John. She is the co-editor of the forthcoming volume Theology and Star Trek. You can follow her on Twitter @cwtheology.
Cushman, P. (1990). Why the self is empty: Toward a historically situated psychology. American psychologist, 45, 599-611.
London, J. (1983). White fang. In P. Horowitz (Ed.), Jack London: Greenwich unabridged library classics (pp. 75-205). New York, NY: Chatham River Press. (Original work published 1906)
Mathewes, C. (2015). Toward a theology of joy. In M. Volf & J. E. Crisp (Eds.), Joy and human flourishing: Essays on theology, culture, and the good life(pp. 63-96). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice.New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Taylor, C. (2007). A secular age.Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press.