By Andrew D. Thrasher, ThM
The Lion King, a film known for its powerful songs and story line, has had a major impact across generations since the original animated film was released in 1994. A few years ago, after beginning to teach world religions, I watched The Lion King and was struck by the theological pluralism and religious sources underlying the imaginary portrayed in the film. The Lion King does not just embody Christian themes of baptism, renewal, restoration, and redemption, but also eastern religious themes from Hinduism, Chinese philosophy, and Primal religions. As such, this film embodies a theological resourcement that re-enchants our late modern imagination with a religious pluralism that articulates an imaginary of cyclical order and the restoration of the righteous King.
Medieval Analogies in The Lion King
At the beginning of The Lion King, Rafiki is called to Pride Rock to present to the subjects of the Kingdom the promised Son of King Mufasa. Simba is marked by Rafiki on the forehead and lifted high above Pride Rock, publicly presenting Mufasa’s righteous successor to the subjects of the Pride Lands. Symbolically representing a public baptism and presentation to the congregation for acceptance, Simba is acknowledged as the rightful heir of Pride Rock. Via the priestly role of Rafiki, Simba is presented to the people as the representative of order and righteousness in the Pride Lands.
Underlying this typology is the pre-modern notion of heteronomy. Heteronomy entails the hierarchical order of society represented symbolically by the King and mediated to the people through the priestly role of church clergy. In the Middle Ages, the priest and church mediated the spiritual reality to the saeculum—the temporal world of ordinary life. As such, in the pre-modern Middle Ages the King symbolically represents the people through the hierarchical order of the noble aristocracy to the common merchant and farmers. Kingship, as mandated by divine rule; symbolically mediated by the church, Mufasa, and Simba; and symbolically represented by the priestly role of Rafiki, symbolically represents the divine order of royal succession before the people.
Also from the Christian Middle Ages, we find developing the idea of an ordered cosmos where the human person microcosmically reflects the macrocosmic order of creation. Within this framework, human beings find themselves symbolically reflecting within themselves and in human society a macrocosmic order that they participate in, sustaining and embedding their identity within a divinely ordered cosmic hierarchy. The Lion King represents this divine hierarchy through eastern religions, and returns to the restoration and renewal of the Kingdom after the fall of Mufasa and exile of Simba.
The Fallen King, The Exiled King
Anyone who knows the story line of The Lion King knows there is tragedy. Mufasa’s younger brother Scar deviously plans a revolt and premeditates the murder of the rightful King and his successor, Simba. Mufasa is tragically betrayed and killed, and Simba is naively convinced of his sinless guilt in his [false] role in killing his father. Scar’s heinous yet incompetent henchmen then fail to kill Simba, and Simba enters his exile from the Pride Lands. With no hope and despairing over life itself, Simba is picked up by Timon and Pumbaa and is taught to live by the motto of Hakuna Matata. This singsong lifestyle is oddly representative of forgetting and burying the past, and living as if nothing is wrong.
As such, Simba’s exile is analogically reminiscent of the Jewish Babylonian Exile, which called the Jews to reinterpret their identity in a new cultural context. However, there are crucial differences between these two exiles. Simba’s exile is a denial and forgetting of his representative role as rightful King. He denies and buries his guilt in a false identity, with no cares and no worries, allowing himself to try to live freely and unchained from his past. When Simba adopts Hakuna Matata as his way of life, he denies his Lion-ness, his past, and his rightful place as King and representative of a divine order in the Pride Lands. When Nala challenges Simba to return to Pride Rock, and when Simba is confronted by his past and the starry ghost of his father, he sets out to return, and finds the Pride Lands in desolation.
By contrast, when the Jews dwelled in Babylon, they reinterpreted what it means to be Jewish by renovating and interpreting Torah as a way of understanding their identity, their past, and the role they are to play in restoring the nations as the representative of a righteous humanity before God through the practice of Torah.
Cyclic Order: Primal, Chinese, and Hindu Perspectives
The Lion King presents us with both Primal and Chinese perspectives on the nature of cyclical existence and the Hindu notions of Natural Order and Disorder—Dharma and Adharma. In the beginning of the film, Simba is instructed of the natural, cyclical order of creation. At the heart of this cyclical order is the notion of balance and harmony. Embodying the Primal respect of the natural world with a Chinese emphasis on cosmic, created harmony—a cosmonomy—Simba learns that there is a natural balance to the cosmos. In the Circle of Life, life ends in death, and death gives life. The natural reality of life is not only that it ends in death, but also that death becomes a means for life in the nourishment of the plants and animals in the earth. As such the Daoist idea of cosmonomy governs the circle of life—there is a cosmic law of balance and harmony to be maintained to support and sustain life. With the extremes of natural deficiency and useless death under Scar’s heinous rule, life cannot be sustained in the Circle of Life.
Hence not only is this cyclical order cosmonomic, but it is also intrinsically and morally constituted. The Pride Lands under Mufasa not only represent the Primal and Chinese notion of a regulated cosmonomy of balance and harmony, but also the Hindu ideas of Dharma and Adharma, that the natural world has a divine and moral order undergirding and sustaining this harmony and balance. In Hinduism, Dharma can signify law, righteousness, duty, order, etc., and has a connotation of an inherent or intrinsic morality governing this natural world. The classical Hindu notion of Dharma also entails the meanings implicated by the Vedic Hindu idea of ṛta—an inherent cosmic order that governs the movements of the stars, sun, moon, day, and night through the maintaining, sustaining performance of sacrifice. Thus, the Hindu notions of Dharma and ṛta imply that there is an inherent moral order to the cosmos. As such the opposite of dharma is adharma—moral disorder and cosmic chaos. When the moral, righteous order of the Pride Lands is disrupted by murder, violence, and ecological abuse, not only do chaos and tyranny reign under Scar and the Hyenas, but the Pride Lands fall into a stark, deathly desolation where neither Dharma is upheld nor the circle of life maintained and sustained. But this is not the end!
Restoration of the Righteous King and the Renewal of the Circle of Life
When Simba and Nala return to the Pride Lands, Simba sees the devastation and adharma inflicted upon the land by Scar’s unrighteous rule and Simba’s failure to uphold his Dharma as the rightful King of Pride Rock. Taking it upon himself to fulfill his dharma and restore righteous rulership in the Pride Lands, Simba challenges Scar and the Hyenas in a clashing, violent battle upon Pride Rock. Through fire and storm, Simba and Scar battle, and at last Simba emerges victorious. When Simba roars at the head of Pride Rock as the restored righteous King, not only is the waste of adharma and fallen cosmonomy washed away by the storm, but the balance of righteous rule is restored, and the Pride Lands are renewed with the Circle of Life. Within this framework are two central Christian themes: Restoration of the Kingdom and the Renewal of the Cosmos.
In the Christian tradition, from the Old Testament and Second Temple Jewish hope for the restoration of the Kingdom of God and Israel, is the hope and expectation in a messiah, or anointed one of God, who will restore God’s Kingdom on earth. Underlying the Jewish and early Christian emphasis on the Kingdom of God is the expectation for the restoration of creation and the Kingdom through the coming King. This King will rule over his Kingdom, restoring Israel to its righteous place among the nations. But this restoration, while mediated through the Messianic King, will not end with the mere restoration of Israel and Humanity, but also the renewal of creation. As such the Christian tradition expects the second coming of Christ when he will fully consummate the Kingdom of God on earth and renew the cosmos. As such the notions of restoration and renewal entail the spiritual transformation of created, material existence. In the renewal and restoration of the cosmos with the coming of the righteous King, Simba reflects King Jesus who restores creation and the Kingdom in righteousness.
Andrew D. Thrasher is a Post-Graduate Researcher at the University of Birmingham, U.K. and Adjunct Instructor of Religion at Tidewater Community College in Southeastern, VA. He holds a ThM from Regent University and a MA from George Mason University. He is a contributor to several books in the Theology and Pop Culture book series and is published in a Festschrift on Raimon Panikkar.