The Gospel of Disney: Amory pastor using ‘Lion King’ and other films to teach scripture

By Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal

Members of Amory’s First United Methodist church might be surprised to see a few new visitors in the sanctuary next year, like Aladdin, Pocahontas, Simba and other Disney characters.
Since Walt Disney and his brother founded what is now the Walt Disney Company in 1923, Disney films have become as much a staple of American life as baseball and apple pie. In January, FUMC Amory’s senior pastor, the Rev. Jimmy Criddle is using the movies and characters to teach the gospel.
“Practically nothing in our culture has as much power in influencing our values and behavior as television,” he said. “As parents and teachers, we have a responsibility to be responsible viewers, and provide our children with a Christian lens through which to view the world.”
Criddle said he will incorporate clips from “The Lion King,” “Aladdin,” “Pocahontas,” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” into his sermons each Sunday from Jan. 13 through Feb. 3. Later in the evening, families and friends are invited to watch the whole film together, complete with popcorn, hotdogs and drinks.
“It’s a fun way to spend the cold winter months with our families,” he said.
Criddle said he acknowledges the fact that Disney movies are hardly ever directly allegorical to the faith, and that many elements of the films do not line up with Christianity. However, he says the themes of the films speak to the human struggle, and often mirror those found in the gospels.
“I’m not preaching the gospel according to Disney. The movies are a method to look at the gospel in a fresh, relevant way,” he said. “Take the beginning of ‘The Lion King’ when Simba is held up before all the other animals. When I see that, I think ‘that’s baptism.’ You have a person anointed before the community who surrounds them and celebrates their identity. As a person now claimed by God, that person has an identity in Christ the community hopes they live into.”
Criddle points out later in the movie that Simba runs away from his identity to hide from his guilt. With the snarky meerkat Timon and the hilarious warthog Pumbaa, Simba falls into a worry-free lifestyle to the tune of “Hakuna Matata.”
“The problem is, the Hakuna Matata lifestyle doesn’t fix anything for Simba. He has to remember who he is and fulfill the identity that has been planned for him,” Criddle said.
And that’s just the first film. With “Aladdin,” Criddle will teach themes of honesty and humility; with “Pocahontas,” a respect for God’s creation and how the right path is not always easiest; and with “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” about making sacrifices and the fact that people are not always what they seem.
To those who say the movies have no place in church, Criddle said he is merely using the culture to explain the gospel, exactly as Jesus did.
“The message never changes, but the presentation has to be relevant,” he said. “Think about it. The society Jesus preached in was very agrarian. He made it relevant to them by using agricultural metaphors in his parables like the mustard seed. These things in culture point us to deeper truths.”
Criddle is young by preacher standards, appointed to Amory’s First United Methodist Church earlier this year at age 35. He said his new church has given its full support to the Disney series.
“As a young preacher, coming to a new church people expect you to try new things,” he said. “It’s good to have that support when trying out creative new ways to present scripture.”
riley.manning@journalinc.com