William J Garrett
Christianity and Film
Dr David A King
Walt Disney and his brother Roy, made it a firm policy that their animated films were designed to appeal to a mass market. In order not to offend any group, Disney did his best to keep religion and God out of his enterprises.1 Those who have inherited the Disney legacy are tying to live by the same motif, albeit with a more humanistic, politically nuanced and multi-cultural prospective.2
Mark Pinsky, a writer on religious content from the Orlando area, researched the Disney organization thoroughly and concluded that there is a Disney Gospel and it should be called “Secular ‘Toonism”. Pinsky notes that, “while religion was never at the center of Disney’s animated features; faith was often the unseen framework”. Disney does have “… a consistent set of moral and human values in these movies, largely based on Western, Judeo-Christian faith and principles … Good is always rewarded; evil is always punished. Faith is an essential element – faith in yourself, and even more, faith in something greater than yourself, some higher power”.3 The supreme force in the Disney world order is not God but often providential magic. The characters must reach deep into themselves for strength but once they do that, they are aided by a more eminent power. This is certainly evident in The Lion King. While Simba is living the good life in Hakuna Matata, he is confronted by his future mate, Nala who challenges him to return to the Pride Land. As Simba struggles with his decision, he reaches a low point in his life crying out to the stars in heaven (where his father Mufasa told him he would be). Simba laments that he has been deserted by all, most especially Mufasa. Than, just like magic, Rafika appears and literally knocks some sense into him and sets Simba on the correct path towards greatness. Simba still has numerous challenges to overcome, but essentially he plays out the script as Pinsky predicted of good triumphing over evil.
Despite Disney’s studios avoidance of religious topics, John Armstrong notes that far more children have been taught the Disney gospel than the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Disney myth shapes popular culture in ways that remove the radical demands of the biblical good news which features “the way, the truth, and the life”.4 Disney’s focus is on the fun, the feel good, the now. Disney films do so by using “universal archetypes – theme or images found in dreams, myths, religions, philosophies, and works of art.”5 The Disney company is not trying to advance a particular brand of religion; in fact they are not trying to promote religious values at all. What Disney is attempting to do is to touch people at the core of their being. Some of the loci of contact are the same building blocks, or archetypes used by the great religious leaders. Therefore it is not surprising that both Jesus and Disney would have a “sermon” on the effective use of one’s talent. Mufasa tells Simba “you have become less than you are;” whereas Jesus tell us that he has come so that we may have life to the fullest (John 10:10). While the advice might be similar, the rationale behind the message is different. In the case of Disney one uses their talents for the here and now; Jesus focuses on the hereafter. Whenever Disney did introduce explicitly religious themes into movies he sought to achieve balance by using beliefs from various religious traditions. In The Lion King there are plenty of Judeo-Christian features, as we will explore in this paper. There are also non-religious and non-Judeo-Christian motifs. For example the film opens with the Hindu influenced theme song the Circle of Life, which speaks to the secular world order. Later in The Lion King, the John the Baptist like figure, Rafiki is seen in a Buddhist pose. It seems that Disney is always sensitive to give each their due.
The Lion King was the...