Thursday, November 03, 2016

Incarnations of Lucifer

Coincidentally (if there ARE coincidences in this life, especially in the realm of popular entertainment—maybe there's a trend here), two current TV series feature Lucifer in person: The long-running SUPERNATURAL, in which two brothers hunt monsters, fight demons, and save the world multiple times; the newer program LUCIFER, in which the Devil goes AWOL from Hell, runs a Los Angeles night club, and works as a civilian consultant for a female homicide detective. Aside from the teeth-grinding implausibilities of the show's versions of police procedure and the work of a therapist (Lucifer's psychologist), I'm enjoying the latter program very much for its characters. The flippant, hedonistic Lucifer has a core of deep-rooted morality, skewed though it may be. This Devil doesn't tempt people to sin. As the (unwilling) ruler of Hell, he punishes evil. When he encounters a Satanist cult in one episode, he rejects them with contempt. His main superpower in human form is to compel people to express their deepest desires. Lucifer in the SUPERNATURAL universe, on the other hand, is unrelentingly evil and, having been freed from the "cage" in which he was imprisoned, is presently roaming the Earth (played by Rick Springsteen as a rock star whose body the Devil has inhabited) with dire prospects for humanity.

In the world of LUCIFER, angels and demons (fallen angels) take physical form by producing fleshly constructs for the purpose—or at least that seems the usual method. Lucifer's mother, on the other hand, becomes corporeal by taking over the body and persona of a dead woman. In SUPERNATURAL, celestial and infernal beings visit Earth by possessing the bodies of living human "vessels." The difference is that angels have to get the host's permission (and demons often seem to destroy the vessels they occupy, judging from the typical outcome when a possessed person is exorcised). Both series postulate a dualistic universe. Good and evil seem to clash on an equal footing. Moreover, the very definitions of "good" and "evil" appear ambiguous. In SUPERNATURAL, many angels have no compunctions about sacrificing human lives in the service of what they conceive as the greater good. As for God, He has been simply absent for most of the series until the climax of last season. Even the highest-ranking angels had no idea where he went or why. In LUCIFER, God seems like the archetype of a strictly authoritative parent, at least as viewed by Lucifer and (by the opening of this season) his unfallen brother who's tasked with returning him to Hell. Both of them portray their "Father" as an inscrutable tyrant.

The universes of SUPERNATURAL and LUCIFER are dualistic in another sense, too. In each, the male Deity has a female consort. In SUPERNATURAL, she's opposite and equal, God's sister, the primal Darkness, co-eternal with Him. In LUCIFER, God has a wife, the Mother Goddess of the universe. However, they're not equal; He has the power to consign her to Hell. God's power doesn't seem unlimited, though, because He has ordered the angelic characters and Lucifer to return her to the infernal realm, and He doesn't take direct action when this command isn't obeyed.

These programs differ radically in their approach to spiritual and metaphysical issues from the older series TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL, one of my all-time favorites, far more conventional in its treatment of God, supernatural beings, and their interaction with humanity. One thing I like very much about TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL is that its angels were explicitly portrayed as another species, a separate creation from us, not the spirits of dead people as in the misconception that stubbornly persists in popular culture. The angels in SUPERNATURAL (but apparently not most of the demons) and LUCIFER also clearly belong to a different order of being from humanity. Why do these newer series depart so far from the orthodox depiction of celestial entities as purely good, as in TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL (not to mention the older program's consistently happy endings)? Has a fundamental shift in cultural attitudes toward spiritual matters occurred in the intervening decades? Or, more likely, has the extent to which the viewing audience will accept iconoclastic treatment of such topics changed, maybe from the influence of boundary-pushing cable programming? Also, TV programmers are always looking for something new to grab the public's attention, so the stretching of boundaries from the simple, financially driven motive of novelty-seeking may partly account for the difference.

The image of God presented in these two current series may strike many viewers as blasphemous. But despite their unorthodoxy, I'm encouraged by the fact that two major networks think it's worthwhile and profitable to offer programs that grapple with issues of ultimate metaphysical significance.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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