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Misreading Hell: The Pedagogy of Lucifer

By Lisa Dickson

Lucifer (Tom Ellis) with a flaming halo in front of the Los Angeles skyline.
Netflix Season 5 poster via Pop Culture Times

Throughout the six-season run of Lucifer (Fox/Netflix, 2016-2021), the Prince of Hell, Lucifer Morningstar (Tom Ellis) believes that he’s running a prison. In the end, he discovers that, all along, he’s been running a school. In becoming himself, he ceases to be a reluctant jailor and becomes, instead, a detective, a therapist, a teacher and a compassionate, flawed seeker. He makes the case that salvation comes from learning and learning happens only when omniscience has left the building (or, in Lucifer’s case, the universe).


Based on the comic book character invented by Neil Gaiman, Lucifer Morningstar’s pedagogical journey begins when the Devil decides to take a vacation, ending up running Lux, a nightclub in Los Angeles, living a life of debauchery, and granting favours. When one of his favourite favees is gunned down in front of Lux, Lucifer joins a Detective, Chloe Decker (Lauren German), on the trail of the killer and, after hijinks ensue, becomes a consultant with the LAPD. Each case brings Lucifer the opportunity to explore some aspect of his mercurial personality as he seeks to extricate himself from his destiny. He has serious “daddy issues” about his judgmental but absentee father and rankles at the idea that his every move is part of some manipulation on “dear old dad’s” part to make him conform to and comply with a predestined story. He is really, really committed to the idea of freewill. He works with his therapist, Dr. Linda Martin (Rachel Harris), and, with her guidance and the help of his growing circle of long-suffering but devoted friends and family, finds himself in a loving relationship and in line to become God (God has vacated the universe to go live in a new one with the primordial Goddess of All Creation). By the end of the series, Lucifer turns down the corner office in Heaven and returns instead to Hell to become therapist to the damned. It’s, pardon my expression, a hell of an arc.

And it’s a great example of a critically hopeful pedagogy of becoming.

Lately I've been thinking. Do you

think I'm the Devil because I'm

inherently evil, or just because dear

ol' dad decided I was?

The problem of growth in the universe of an omniscient god is one that is as old as omniscient gods. Predestination is a braintwist that has twisted bigger brains than mine, so I’m not going to wrestle with that one, nor am I going to make any claims about religion at all; I’m not kicking any of those hornets’ nests, but instead will keep my eye on the universe that the show has created. There’s something interesting in Lucifer Morningstar’s struggling against the constraints of a suspected but obscured guiding omniscience that can open up questions for pedagogy, foundational questions about how we structure the ethics of pedagogy, our ends and our means as teachers, and the trust gaps we open up when we offer an illusion of autonomy within a story that we ourselves, as the gods of our courses, have written for our students. In (mis)appropriating the story of Satan/Samiel/Lucifer, the TV series shifts us into the realm of urban theo-fantasy where the rules of both Earthly and metaphysical realms are suspended, allowing us to ask, as 3M National Teaching Fellow Aleksandra Zecevic did at a recent conference presentation: “What if everything were possible? What would you do?”

To answer that question, we have to make a brief pit stop in the metaphysics of pedagogy, where we can find some grounding in John D. Caputo’s discussion of recollection and repetition (where he holds our hands for a little ankle-wading into Plato, Hegel and Kierkegaard). Recollection, according to Caputo, is a Platonic “nostalgic melancholy longing for a lost paradise” (15); knowledge in this paradigm is defined as anamnesis, the recollection of truths that exist in the realm of Forms. The knowledge is always already there, in other words, built-in and accessible by the operations of reason. So, moving forward in the pursuit of knowledge through deductive reasoning is actually a movement backward to recover something that we have forgotten. This is what Caputo calls a “teleo-archeology” (34), where knowledge “is not a discovery which forges ahead… but a recovery, a recollection that recoups a lost cognition” (13). In this paradigm, we can only follow along a path to a telos, a predetermined end (which is a lost beginning). Kierkegaard, on the other hand, makes a case for repetition, a “futurity of decisiveness” (15) in which “actuality must be continually produced, brought forth anew” (17). This model moves forward, accounting for the past but by way of the “exception” (31). Repetition in this model is always repetition-with-a-difference, and the difference is how we move toward the new by way of the unprecedented, the unexpected, and, especially in Lucifer’s case, the failure to conform.

Lucifer, this sexy show about a sexy Devil solving crimes in LA, is at one level a cage match between Plato and Kierkegaard, recollection and repetition-with-a-difference. Lucifer’s “daddy issues” are grounded in a fear of recollection, the inescapable suspicion that all of his actions are trapped in a reproduction of a story always already written. While Lucifer wants his father’s love and approval, he does not want to be “approved” for becoming what has been prewritten. Rather, he wants to become what he becomes outside of that eschatological culmination. Which is why he’s in therapy.

All my time with Dr. Linda has been

about exploring the denial that I'm in, but

I've overcome that now, I've had an

honest-to-Devil epiphany. Now all my

problems should just, you know, go


Lucifer’s habitual misreading of Dr. Linda’s advice is a running in-joke throughout the series. Her advice is invariably reasonable, good, and backed by authority, and his misunderstanding of this advice is well-intended, foolish, shallow, and hilariously earnest, seemingly constituting a sort of comic narrative loop in which each therapy session ends with Linda sighing a variation on the theme of “That is not what I meant, at all.” But it’s also precisely the mechanism of Lucifer’s growth. Lucifer goes off every time to do the opposite of what Linda recommends; the dispatch from the doctor is lost, or intercepted, mis-read, reinterpreted and appropriated “incorrectly” in Lucifer’s ongoing project to refashion himself. It is not by following carefully but by applying the knowledge of the authority in unorthodox ways that Lucifer comes to understand and rewrite himself over and over again. He does not move forward by returning to the rules, but by moving the rules forward in ways that the rules could not have anticipated. By all traditional measures, he is a “bad student” but he is a terrific learner.

Consider, for example, the fact that angels in the Lucifer universe “self-actualize.” What an angel becomes arises from what they think they are and how they respond to the messy conditions of the human world they inhabit. Lucifer’s brother, Amenadiel (D.B. Woodside), loses his wings and his ability to slow time because he fears he is no longer a favoured son, and regains them when he acknowledges that his ability to step outside of the flux of human time has obscured from him his love for humanity. Lucifer finds and loses and finds again his “devil face” as his own identity develops from a self-loathing conformity to the Devilish stories told about him, through a loss of purpose, to an assumption of power with a difference. As his love for Chloe Decker grows, he manifests various versions of himself as he attempts to conform to or to resist, first, the story imposed on him by “dear ol’ dad,” and then to the story imposed by his belief that he is unworthy of Chloe. In the end, he finds that he can determine for himself which face he wears. He takes up the “devil” again but with a difference, ultimately choosing to return to Hell, not as the jailor and torturer he has been, but as a teacher and fellow traveler with the damned. He makes this journey not by following the rules but by redefining and rewriting them. In his journey to his new sense of purpose, he models a critically hopeful pedagogy of becoming.

People don’t arrive broken. They start

with passion and yearning until

something comes along that disabuses

them of those notions.

Critically hopeful education is how, to borrow a phrase from Homi K. Bhabha, “newness enters the world,” where the learner not only recollects the “tradition” delivered to them by the teacher (in a “postal” dispatch from the past to the present, as Jacques Derrida describes it). Rather, the learner, crucially, also mis-learns, un-learns, re-inscribes and de-ploys the curriculum in ways that are not anticipated by the curriculum. For instance, this past year, I felt that I was a “bad” teacher because students did not produce projects that conformed to the criteria that have served me well in the past. However, they did produce projects that demonstrated how they were using the material to grapple with the crushing anxieties and uncertainties of learning in a pandemic present. Under a traditional model of assessment this kind of learning would have been invisible. Thinking in a more Luciferian way, however, I see that we constructed a space where together we could bring to the surface the very real conditions of our learning. Students asked for different kinds of assignments such as a “wellness inventory” in which they would get credit for not working and engaging in restorative rest. In adapting to the moment, we created a more compassionate space. In acknowledging their lived reality, they mis-appropriated the traditional structure of the curriculum and its outcomes and produced something new, a repetition with a difference that helped us to redefine ourselves by rewriting the rules of “productivity,” “rigor” and “success.”

Like a colonial subject appropriating a colonizer’s book in Bhabha’s “Signs Taken for Wonders,” the learner always takes up the posted letter of the curriculum in ways that assure that the letter “is always ambivalent, split between its appearance as original and authoritative and its articulation as repetition and difference (107). Such an understanding of learning demands a consideration of our practices—of assessment and grading, for instance—that often rest on a traditional, inviolable narrative of “success” and cannot capture a kind of generative learning that produces outcomes we did not anticipate in our design. Lucifer, the wayward son and “bad” student, occupies this space of ambivalence, seeking repetition rather than recollection, taking up the story he’s given and living it with a difference: “broken” and rearranged through mishap, misreading and resistance. Through this process of will-full misreading, a new kind of god is born, a god of non-omniscience. A god-as-learner.

This kind of god is something that traditional models of education are ill-equipped to handle. In our traditional teleo-archeological models of education and “assessment,” where students are led to a series of “outcomes” determined in advance, Luciferian excesses and deviations are coded as “errors.” To be “counted” in the traditional system, the Luciferian learner must cease to be a Lucifer. What does not “recollect” is designated “incorrect.” Lucifer’s struggles, on the contrary, emerge as an admittedly chaotic series of interventions, creative, disruptive repetitions that ex-cede the boundaries of a fixed system of knowledge that “counts.” It is for this reason that “dear ol’ dad” is absent in Lucifer’s universe. In season 5, God (Dennis Haysbert) comes for a visit during which he and Lucifer reconnect and reconcile (5.9 “Family Dinner”). But that reconciliation culminates in God’s exit from the universe altogether, and the world is left under the interim management of a very non-omniscient Devil-god-in-transition (5.14 “Nothing Lasts Forever”). Growth, the series suggests, cannot really happen until Elvis has left the building. The world of learning benefits less from all-knowing father figure who will keep the learner on a narrow path toward an assigned end, than from, it seems, a fellow-traveler like Lucifer, who is accepting especially of the brokenness of “deviants,” and who believes that everyone has the ability to re-re-rewrite their own story.

Enter “Said Out Bitch,” a low-level, deeply unlucky crook, Lee Garner. Lee Garner is a returning character who crosses Lucifer’s path at least once a season, each time attempting a poorly planned and unsuccessful heist. Ultimately, Lee is murdered and goes to Hell where he is tortured, like all of Hell’s denizens, by his entrapment in a “Hell Loop”(5.1. “Really Sad Devil Guy”) where he relives his murder again and again for eternity. In an attempt to help Chloe solve Lee’s murder, Lucifer engages Lee’s help and, in the course of the investigation, leads Lee out of his assigned Hell Loop to a new place where he confronts his greatest fear and regret. Lucifer leaves Lee outside his family home to contemplate his past decision to run away, unable to believe that his family would love and accept him if he would just walk through the door. A new loop for Lee.

Or is it? In the finale of season five (5.16 “A Chance at a Happy Ending”), Lucifer risks his existence to return to Heaven in order to bring Chloe Decker back to Earth. And who does he meet strolling around Heaven in a nice cable-knit sweater and chinos? “Said Out Bitch,” Lee Garner, the only human ever to make his way to Heaven from Hell.

Lucifer Morningstar: I am here because

I'm the King of Hell. This is my

job. This is my duty.

Lee Garner: Now who's making


Lee is without precedent. Having confronted his greatest fear, he has learned enough about himself in his unorthodox second Hell Loop to find his way to Heaven. The torture of endless return has instead been transformed into something else, a pure surprise and a path opening to a new way of thinking about Hell itself. In a traditional sense, Lee is an error, a violation of the rules. In involving Lee in solving the mystery of his own death, Lucifer has misappropriated the message and machinery of Hell—punishment through the inescapable and unchangeable story—and turned Hell instead into a site of unexpected growth. What was initially designed to be torment has been transformed by this misreading and misappropriation into a means of liberation.

Lee is a proof-of-concept arising from Lucifer’s own acts of un-making.

There's a good chance this thing might

come out of me with wings. Wings!

Lucifer becomes who he is by breaking the rules, by entering Heaven and dying for love. When he ceases to be what he is, he becomes, in John Caputo’s words, “we know not what,” a being who rewrites the rules of Heaven and Hell. In the final episode (6.10 “Partners ‘Til the End”), we find him in a replica of Dr. Linda’s office, questioning the damned, not to torment them, but to point them toward Heaven. But this is not the “lost paradise” of a Platonic return; rather, it’s a new kind of Heaven made not for the guiltless but for “we know not what.” There, Amenadiel leads from God’s seat, but commutes home to Earth to be with Linda and their son Charlie. We see him reacting with as much surprise as Linda does when Charlie suddenly sprouts wings at his birthday party. This is a god who lives in time, who can be surprised, who can learn new things and who helps the angels become something new, too.

Learners, Lucifer suggests, grow in the spaces where the teacher’s omniscience is not in play, and where the learners know it’s not in play. We can hear that Luciferian suspicion of a cagy omniscience when students ask us what we “really want” them to say. Unless learners know that we are not omniscient, that we’re as embedded in time as they are (maybe with a little more time under our belts to give us some tools we can share), they will never trust their own learning, will always be looking for a hidden manipulation. There will always be a trust gap if students suspect that we’re only pretending to let them grow, having already determined what they are expected to become. Rather, if we begin from a place where “all things were possible,” where the end is not always already encoded in the design of the universe or the classroom, and if we make that known, we can let Lucifer become himself. We can be surprised by wings. Lucifer the series, comic, irreverent, challenging, sexy, asks us what a critically hopeful pedagogy would look like, if we could just embrace the misreadings, the misfires, the unexpected misappropriations of our “tradition” and make way for the coming of the new.

Lucifer shows a witness a sketch of an angel.
Lucifer Season 6, screen grab via Collider

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