The Lion King: A Gospel Narrative for Generation Z
As a millennial, I love this stroll down memory lane as Disney slowly remakes all of my childhood favorites. Turning classic animated stories into “real life” versions is just the trick to invite a whole new generation to fall in love with the beauty of these timeless tales.
The most recent release of these remakes is The Lion King. The anticipation around this film has been months in the making, but the real buzz came the week before opening day as the franchised premiered Beyonce’s music video for one of the film’s title songs, “Spirit.” The song is meant to pay tribute to the rich heritage of Africa, which is strongly tied to the spiritual.
Since its original release, The Lion King has always had a tie to the spiritual. In fact, it has even been heralded as a story with clear, redemptive, Christological imagery – the remake is no different. Actually, I would go so far to say that the remake offers even deeper gospel-imagery that beautifully speaks to a core fear of this particular generation.
If the cinematography and nostalgia are not enough to entice you to go watch the new Lion King, I strongly encourage you to see it and make the most of this cultural moment that offers a unique space for us to share gospel-truth with our students!
How The Lion King offers gospel-hope to Generation Z
Imagine going through the pain and loss Simba experienced at the death of his father. Not only did he lose his “pal,” but he lost his protector. It is in this moment of suffering that his uncle, Scar – the villain in this story – preys on the opportunity to feed him the most destructive lie he could possibly give. Scar convinces Simba that he is alone. He convinces Simba that no one will understand what happened; no one will love him anymore; everyone will turn from him.
Does this sound familiar? These are the same lies that our students are surrounded by every day. In a generation marked by the moniker, loneliest, the enemy seems to be preying on today’s teenagers by isolating them. The enemy of our students’ souls has fed them the lie that they are alone. And just as Scar’s lie caused Simba to abandon his family, friends, and even home, Satan’s lie has caused our students to abandon the church, friends, and – worst of all –truth.
In the middle of Simba’s isolation, he meets some of our favorite characters – Timon and Pumba. But why do we love these two so much? Apart from their comedic relief, our affection goes to these characters because of their care and acceptance for Simba in his darkest of moments. And is this not exactly what the culture offers to our students? As Satan isolates them from truth, the culture presents a respite that the enemy is all too happy to let them settle for. While God wants to rescue them from the pain of a broken world through comfort and hope of restoration, the culture offers them a place of mere acceptance, with no hope of healing. For example, I read a tweet the other day that said “gen z culture is saying ‘I wanna die’ and instead of your friends trying to make you feel better they all go ‘same.’” Similarly, Simba’s moment of bonding with Timon and Pumba came as he alluded to his pain, and his new friends did not seek to comfort but simply commiserate. Simba found a place where no one sought to help him through his pain, but were content to just help him have a place amidst it.
What I loved about the remake is that Timon and Pumba brilliantly represent the false-narrative of Generation Z.
“Let’s make this simple: life is meaning.”
This is Timon’s “encouragement” to Simba in the midst of his sorrow. While this existentialist view might sound bleak, Timon’s point is to say that Simba must choose a worry-free life – eat, drink, be merry – for life is only a line we travel until we get to the end. So think simply about your own happiness and desires, because to each his own!
And just like we watch Simba “grow up” under this narrative as a teenager, we are watching our students do the same. As they seek a respite for their weary souls, they hear the culture telling them it’s okay to “just do you” and this mantra becomes a place of rest for their fearful, anxious, or performance-driven hearts. Yet, as Christ told His disciples in Matthew 11:28-30, true rest can only come from one source. All offers of rest not rooted in Christ are false promises that ultimately will not last.
The true beauty of The Lion King narrative is in Simba’s journey back to the pride lands.
Simba has been living in the cultural narrative of Hakuna Matata (no worries) and he was perfectly content – honestly, happy – to be there. So much so that even when his closest friend, Nala, comes to bring him home, not only does he not want to leave but he tries to convince her to stay. Even though Nala is speaking past the lies of Scar – that he is unwanted and unneeded – Simba cannot see the truth over the seeming comfort of his culture.
This is the story of many of our students as well.
Yet one of the more explicit and beautiful gospel parallels in the film comes in the event that finally draws Simba out of the lies and back to the pride land. While Nala’s words did not cause Simba to remember who he was, they did begin a journey. The baboon Rafiki takes Simba to the water and that’s when things change. Rafiki shows Simba what he has ultimately forgotten – the truth of whose image he actually bears. You see, it was when Simba had felt as if he had let his father down that he became vulnerable to Scar’s lie that he had lost his status as son and, ultimately, king. So when Rafiki meets Simba, he asks him, “who are you?”
Simba’s response: “I’m nobody.” He had lost his identity.
But Rafiki surprises Simba by saying he knows who Simba is because he knew Simba’s father.
Rafiki brings Simba to the water and tells him to look down. In Simba’s reflection, Rafiki restores his broken narrative. He asks Simba, “Do you see him? Do you see your father? He is in you.”
What ultimately draws Simba out of the lies and away from the cultural narrative is the reminder of his true identity; he is an image-bearer and heir of his father. Our students need us to put on display the image of the father, to introduce them to and remind them of the remarkable image they bear. They need to be reminded that the cross not only brought mercy on their sins but it poured out grace to make them co-heirs with Christ as sons and daughters of God (Romans 8:17).
What a beautiful story to tell! And this is exactly the story our students need to hear. To combat the lies and the cultural narratives, our students need more than knowledge, they need vision. It is one thing to tell our students about the gospel, it is another to show them God, the image of God Himself, as reflected in His people.
So, as you watch The Lion King, take the opportunity to engage the plot with your students. It is more than a nice story. It is a reflection of our own story. Even in the final fight scene, we watch as Scar attempts to repeat the same tired lies to Simba in order to weaken him. Only this time, Simba is able to stay and fight, not simply because he believes in himself, but because he believes in the kingdom of his father and he has been reminded that it is something worth dying for. The kingdom of God is one that will never end and never fail. It is coming into fullness but is also already here. This is the kingdom to which our students are heirs, and it truly is worth dying for.
While our students might be part of the “loneliest” generation, they have never once actually been alone. They have been fed the lies of Satan and the narrative of a culture who says “it’s all meaningless,” so “you do you.” What do we need to do to remind our students of their true identity? We need to take them to the word and show them the image they bear. We must take them to the cross and remind them of the inheritance that is theirs. We must show them a kingdom that is worth more than their emotions, but their whole life. Simba saw his place in “the circle of life” as the motivation to fulfill his role as king, no matter the cost, because his life was no longer about him alone: this is the kingdom narrative of God. We were chosen before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4) to walk in the works God has prepared beforehand (Eph. 2:10). And beyond that, we are not an only kid or a solo image-bearer of our father, but we are part of a family – in Lion King terms, a pride. We are saved by God TO the people of God. It is together, as the church, that we bear the full image of our Father. Our story is not our own, but it is part of a much larger story that began with witnesses long before us (Heb. 12:1) and will continue until Christ’s return. So no matter the lies Satan tell our students about their shame or anxiety, our King offers a bigger story that not only takes away their fears, but grants them grace of a life abundant – a life that is not centered on them, but on their Father’s glory. This is the narrative generation z most longs to hear.