The Lion King was originally released in 1994, shaping emotional and spiritual landscapes for thousands of children and teens.
Recently at my sister’s 30th birthday party, I was end of night DJ – my lesser-known, but highly regarded role. My closing song choice at 3am went down an absolute storm. It was a risk, granted. But who doesn’t want to mispronounce Arsène Wenger’s name at the top of their lungs, in an attempt to belt out some Zulu, in a gloriously united effort to recreate the emotional high of that first line from Elton John’s ‘Circle of life’? No one. Absolutely no one. (By the way, I am available for weddings, Bar-mitzvahs and Grandma’s 95th birthdays.)
The Lion King was originally released in 1994. Messages about life and death, sin and purpose flowed from the mouths of lions other than Aslan’s, shaping emotional and spiritual landscapes for thousands of children and teens. I was one of them. Unbeknown to me, and in the tradition of CS Lewis, Disney’s story was drip feeding gospel truth into my thirsty young soul. Though the technology in this year’s new version has changed, from drawn to photorealistic computer-generated animation, the themes that speak so deeply to our human hearts, have not. We have a great opportunity to help children and young people see more in the movie.
How it all began
There is something in me that just loses it when Simba gets lifted up in Rafiki’s hands and is presented to the world. Though he is bewildered, uncertain and unaccomplished (like me), he is a child of the King (like me) and his destiny is marked out. In a world where everything is earned through social performance – on and offline – and grace is often just a friend’s name, our children and young people desperately need to know the deep truths that scream from the screen in The Lion King’s opening scene.
The Zulu in the powerful opening line of the film – “Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba Sithi uhm ingonyama” – translates: “Here comes a lion, Father. Oh yes, it’s a lion”, which with the lost-in-translation-meaning of the Zulu added back, shoots to starrier heights, declaring: “Behold, a King is coming, Father, I will conquer.” Boom. This is badly needed truth and that’s why it feels so good to belt it out at 3am…or any time of day for that matter. Seriously, give it a go next time you need a pick-me-up!
CS Lewis in The Magician’s Nephew, describes Aslan singing creation into being. The Genesis account of creation and its repetitive lyric “it is good”, is a love song about us. We are made and marked, created and chosen. We are invited into the circle of life that is God’s trinitarian love. The something-in-me that loses it is my desperate need for this love, for this invitation.
How it all goes wrong
“Run away Simba and never return” – Scar. “You must take your place in the circle of life” – Mufasa. Lies and truth and the age old battle for the human soul.
Jesus tells us that the thief comes to destroy (John 10:10). In Paul for Everyone, NT Wright defines the devil as “the quasi-personal source of evil standing behind both human wickedness and large-scale injustice”. Yet how often do we talk with children and young people about the battle raging? How often do we arm them with tools to “stand their ground”? (Ephesians 6:13). Scar’s character is a great conversation starter and an example of how the enemy of our souls can work in our lives. Scar traps and tempts Simba to distrust that what his father says is good and wise and then positions him in a place of danger. Scar jumps on the back of the tough stuff that follows, adding shame and lying to him about who he is, saying: “It’s all your fault.” Simba runs away and hides out in the desert, which feels so comfortable (‘Hakuna matata’!), but it causes him to forget his purpose while the world starves. How often is this our story?
How it all comes right
The gloriously fun Rafiki reminds me so much of the Holy Spirit and God’s rescue of us. He searches us out, busts into our lives in unexpected ways and guides us back into truth (John 16:13). He reminds us of who we are (Romans 8:14-16), reconnects us with the Father’s voice and sends us running home to take our place in ‘the circle of life’ (aka the kingdom of God). Are we helping our children and young people hear the voice of truth through reflecting on scripture about their identity, so that they too can run and roar?
There’s a lot of spiritual rest-roar-ation (groan) to be had in this story. It’s rich with gospel narrative. Thank you Disney. Thank you Jesus.