My Family Took Me to See the Lion King
July 28, 2019
My family took me to see “The Lion King.”
PROLOGUE: [Whitehead quote.]
A couple of weeks ago, my family took me to see “The Lion King.”
I went because it was a family activity, but I was curious to see what its popularity was all about—the first movie, in 1990, generated a Broadway production in 1997 which, years later generated still another movie, all three versions generating millions upon millions of fans and dollars—it was a never-ending sensation—why?
I actually found myself quite taken with the movie itself, despite all the Disneyfications.
For one thing, the usual cartoon animation was replaced by computer graphics of uncanny verisimilitude. People would have had to be going home and wondering why their dog can’t speak to them in English!
The movie starts with its exuberant signature anthem called “The Circle of Life,” about the abundance of life and all its attendant experiences of faith and love and hope and despair.
We are first shown great panoramas of the domain of Africa ruled by a king, in this case a lion king named Mustafa, who is later killed by a rival, and his son, the young lion cub Simba, believes he is responsible and exiles himself far away from the pride until the day when an epiphany prompts him to return home and defeat the usurping murderer of his father.
Serious sub-themes surface—the young prince must learn adult lessons, a romance of presumed marriage will flower, a bromance flourishes between the lion cub, a warthog and a weasel (carnivores who become insectarians); mental errors are made under the burden of guilt—all accompanied with songs.
If a sign of a good story is the number of other stories it summons up, this one is good—longing for a lost father’s return (his son Telemachus and wife Penelope wait for Odysseus for 20 years); a contest in royal succession (Hamlet, Black Panther); paternal self-sacrifice (Darth Vader).
Compounded by these outside father-son resonances, this fable presents itself in such gendered terms that I was wondering very early on what women, or girls, got out of it. Battles between male rivals, postures of protectiveness and patronization, the female subordinations of human society transferred to the animal world. The glorification of patriarchy seemed wholly untouched by cultural shifts of the past 100 years.
So, I was mentally headed for the exits when the following moment occurred: out in the wild, Simba now grown, is debating with himself whether he should return and doubting that he should. “My father is dead, and I did it.” Until, the mischievous mandrill challenges Simba that he doesn’t know who he is (Hamlet again?). He then propels Simba to the edge of a pond where Simba sees his own reflection merged in the surface with an image of his father’s. “Your father is alive, see? He lives in you.” From that moment, experienced in solitude and silence (except for the choir of angels in the soundtrack), Simba’s place in the world suddenly jumps into focus.
The father Mustafa says to his son, “You must take your place in the Circle of Life.” And Simba replies, “Father, don’t leave me,” a poignant refrain. But the image evaporates, and Simba is alone under the silent stars his father once taught him were emblems of the ancestral kings.
What the audience might be appreciating here is the challenge of being a man, or rather, of becoming a man. Perhaps that’s how women see and react to this movie, as a call by a man to all men, to shoulder male responsibility and for them to earn their “manhood” honestly. That message would be worth making a movie for: Cut the patronizations, guys, just do your job!
Or even women may be hearing in this a direction to look at their own fathers this way.
But, by the same token, I was wondering how a young boy without a father, or a good father, reacts at this point in the story. How would he translate what he is watching into a truth for him? I think of Barak Obama here. And, even more generally, in a world of such mobility, and dislocation, and rootlessness, what could it mean to come back and claim your “kingdom.” Is this child then just transported into the longing for a pure fantasy?
Nevertheless, after this scene, I was back into this movie. The next question was, what would they do with this mystical moment at the pool that seemed to speak from across the eons. The story picks up again, and when the heir returns home, the truth will out, just like murders do, and now came the necessary reckoning in the last reel. So it is truth and justice are served in the end.
Of course, there were no overt theological references, there shouldn’t and needn’t have been. Yet religious and spiritual meanings were obliquely knocking on the door. Alas, they might have surfaced, had the entertainment quotient not gotten in the way.
The God-ordained, tragic paradoxes of human life were almost there. And the fulfillment that comes with the acknowledgement and the embrace of our divine parentage was almost there. But what would bringing up God really add to the equation anyway? Was it best to have skirted that issue, as the movie did?
Because, surely, we are just puzzled by the appalling story of Abraham and Isaac. It takes place over three days, during which the two silently hike to the top of Mt. Moriah as Abraham rehearses Yahweh’s sacrifice order in his head. The silence twice speaks to Abraham, in unexpected ways. Inhuman. Except, God, as a word for everything that is not human, appears in our story this morning, like a fossil captured in amber, to disclose the different stages of the human relationship to God, as Whitehead muses, evolving from a void in the skies, into an enemy who initiates the sacrificial agony, into a companion by the end of the Abraham story and, of course, in the story of Jesus in the Upper Room.
When we finally get to Jesus, whom the gospel record states had many solitary moments, God becomes a word that includes the human, and so because of Jesus we learn that God contains an intimate possibility for us, God now having been revealed to be the companion that God is, the fellow-sufferer who understands.
What we overhear in the Upper Room is a kind of mystical square dance in which Jesus, the disciples, God and we lock and unlock arms in a continuous musical trance. We are party to this cosmic dance if we join in the party and “follow God’s commandments.” Jesus has personalized the Creator here into the generative figure that God is, the eternal parent. When Jesus says, “I am in the Father, and the Father is in me,” we should not mistake that for representing Jesus as identical with God (as is commonly done). There is never identity with God, only unanimity, and that only on condition of our embrace of the way God’s creation works. “Love” is the proximity to God we attain wherever we jump in and swim with the river’s current. That should show us that the word “obedience” is not like dog training—it is the intentional conforming to the depth of the Divine reality.
All the other stories I have mentioned aim at reconciliation; however, Disney’s story ends with the heroic triumph of One-Singled-Out-for-Success—this is, after all, the fantastical age of Heroes and Superheroes. Bowing to the entertainment gods has resulted in the trivialization of its own most potent meanings, and mainly, I believe, by the music. I wonder whether, if the producers had omitted the entire soundtrack, the Lion King might have produced something more nourishing.
Yet, for all the distortions by Disney of Africa, of Africa’s many different peoples, and of Nature (after all, it is only a fable), nevertheless here Disney manages to ask one of our primal questions: Where did we come from, and where will we end? This movie does portray how dire are our straits! We come from the loins of our mothers and fathers, we are born in the funk and delivered wet and helpless into something far bigger than we.
The father-son relationship stands in, I have to think, as a paradigm of the parental role, by which it means to say—don’t sacrifice your children, play your part fully, play your part fiercely: protect, teach, reprove, reward—and mothers are as fierce as father, we call all attest! The Lion King writers got that part wrong in the fable—the lioness in nature is the fiercer parent of the two.
Parents, all these stories are saying to you lions and lionesses is that you are not your children’s friend. At most you are their companion (one who breaks bread with them) as you travel with them the unwinding path of life and love, despair and hope in the Circle we call Life.
All this we learn in solitary contemplation of our solitariness under the stars created by our only true Companion. You should be looking out the window every chance you get, even for a moment, because the One who greets you there is not the Void, or the Enemy, but your Companion, the fellow sufferer who understands.
--Rev. Richard Chrisman, 7/28/2019
From the day we arrive on the planet
And blinking, step into the sun
There's more to see than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done
There's far too much to take in here
More to find than can ever be found
But the sun rolling high
Through the sapphire sky
Keeps great and small on the endless round
It's the circle of life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding