The Significance of Lions
For my father’s birthday, I made him a set of bookends that featured the silhouette of a lion. I chose to design the bookends in this fashion because a lion seemed to fit with how I view my father. This reasoning may appear natural to some, and odd to others. Those who deem it odd are probably the more observant. Why should a silhouette of a lion have any connection with my completely human father? The answer to this question suggests important ideas about pictures and symbols and connects to the deep significance of symbols in religious language and thought. As odd as it seems, considering the use of a lion silhouette on a set of bookends may help us better grasp how we use symbols and images when we speak of God.
How do we use symbols? Why do we use them? These are complicated questions, with complicated answers. Let’s start with a more specific question. What do you think of when you hear the word “lion”? You probably think of a large, yellow-brown cat who lives on the savannah. You probably think of the majestic mane of the male lion and the roar uttered by both males and females of this species. But this is just the definition of the word “lion,” or a basic (and rather unscientific) description of the animal we use the word “lion” to refer to. Is this all you think of when you hear the term “lion”? Probably not. You are likely to associate more general ideas with it, such as majesty, strength, and ferocity. You may connect the term to other places it is used, or things it is used to describe, such as Aslan, or Simba, or even Jesus, “the Lion of the tribe of Judah.” These associations are often tied to images of a lion doing particular things, but they are still in some sense distinguishable from the basic description of the lion that we first discussed. A very interesting thing has happened at this point; you have simultaneously done two things. You have thought of the definition of the word (or instances of things the word refers to). But you have also thought of larger characteristics that begin to make it possible for you to think of something as “lion-like” that is not actually a lion. “Lion” allows you to refer to the animal, but also triggers associations with the term that do not directly refer to the lion itself.
A similar process took place in my choice to use the silhouettes of lions for my father’s bookends. While I admit that I did not sit down and carefully ponder the various resonances of the term “lion,” I also did not simply pick “lion” out of a random list of animals. I chose lions because they are something we admire and often use as heralds (in an attempt to inspire respect). In short, because I was giving these bookends to a man I greatly respect, I was naturally drawn to an image associated with respect and heraldic imagery. C.S. Lewis famously uses the symbol of a lion in the person of Aslan in his Narnia series. Aslan serves as a Christ-figure in the world of Narnia. Why does Lewis build his world in this fashion? Should we simply read “Aslan the lion,” replace this with “Jesus” in our heads, and be done with it? No! Lewis is far too great of an author to have used an image in such a clunky, pointless way. Instead, we ought to ask ourselves what he conveys by making his Christ-figure a lion. To illustrate this point, let’s briefly look at one scene that suggests the significance of Lewis’ choice to make Aslan a lion.
You may remember the scene. All four children have made it into Narnia together and are at the house of the beavers. The beavers speak of Aslan to the children, telling them that he is coming to overthrow the White Witch and set things right. The conversation that follows is truly enlightening:
“Is-is he a man?” asked Lucy. “Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion–the Lion, the great Lion” … “Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy. “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver . . . “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” “I’m longing to see him,” said Peter, “even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point.”
In this passage, Lewis partially explains the significance of his choice to make Aslan a lion (in a way that is more explicit than is often true of symbols and metaphors). Aslan is a lion because he is King. Thus, the first symbolic significance of the lion: royalty. Lewis also tells us that Aslan is not safe. This suggests that Lewis is drawing upon the images we share of a lion’s strength. The second significance: power and ferocity. And this power and ferocity is such that Lewis’ Christ-figure is not safe. He ought to frighten and challenge us to some degree. By making Aslan a lion, then, Lewis has both told us important things about the character in the story and indicated something about his general conception of Christ, for whom Aslan stands as a figure, or symbol.
Lewis does not attempt to establish a one-to-one correspondence between Aslan and Christ. If we remove the image of Aslan and simply replace him with Christ, we lose something. Instead, Lewis uses the imagery of Aslan to enrich our conception of Christ. We are reminded that Christ is King, and that his majesty and strength make him “unsafe”—he is someone to be loved, yes, but also someone to be worshiped and served. He is our helper and Savior, but he is also our Lord.
What is the point of these apparently scattered thoughts? We use symbols to help us see things in a new light, or to highlight aspects of what we are symbolizing with the symbol. We see things “through” symbols, but we only do so in a certain fashion. One might better understand this by thinking of the difference between looking at a scene “through” a window and looking at a scene “through” night vision goggles. When we look through a window, we generally don’t notice the window. The window doesn’t add anything to what we see; the best windows make no difference to how things appear outside of them. This is sometimes how we approach metaphors and symbols. We plug in what is symbolized and completely fail to see the symbol. I mean to suggest that we should rather look “through” symbols like night vision goggles. Such goggles actively change what we see. We don’t cease to see the goggles entirely, but we also see “beyond” them. The goggles highlight what we would otherwise miss and add light or images, which are “superimposed” upon the darkness, that our bare eyes would not normally see. Thus, when we look at something “through” a symbol, we must, to a certain extent, retain the symbol and not simply the substitute the thing symbolized for the symbol.
God does exactly this throughout the Scriptures. Jesus is said to be a door, a vine, and branches. God is depicted in the Old Testament as a fierce warrior, a stronghold, a husband, and a father. He appears to Israel as a cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. In the New Testament, Jesus is described as a lion and a lamb, as real food and real drink. When we read this imagery, we should not simply read the actions of the symbol, substitute God for that symbol, and move on. This is true of both symbolic descriptions (e.g. Jesus describing himself as a vine, Jesus pictured as a lamb in Revelation) and of theophanies, or divine appearances (e.g. God appearing to Israel as a pillar of fire). Instead, we have to ask ourselves what associations are tied with that symbol. Why a vine, specifically? What could God have to teach Israel by appearing as a pillar of fire? We can continue this sort of questioning when we encounter literature, song, or poetry. Why has the author or artist chosen that image? What is he/she trying to say? Symbols, metaphors, and images are crucial, because they connect with us on a deep level, allowing us to attach long-lasting impressions and ideas to what they describe. But we short-circuit their meaning if we immediately substitute it for the symbol.
These questions are crucial to navigating the Scriptures, theological writing and reading, and much of everyday life. Symbols and metaphors surround us, and we will see more clearly if we carefully consider these symbols—without immediately dismissing them for what they symbolize. As you read and pray, worship and sing, think about the images you and others use (both of God and of the world in general). Why are those images there? What association and significance comes with them? Or, if it helps this process to start with a specific question: Why might a son give the father he loves a gift of bookends emblazoned with lions?
Caleb Little is a doctoral student at Baylor Univeristy. He is a Reformed theologian who possesses a deep interest in the insights of the early theologians of Christianity. When not studying, he enjoys wood working, biking, and reading a wide variety of fiction, with a particular taste for mythology, scifi, and fantasy.
 Revelations 5:5.
 C. S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2000), 79-80.
 Lewis is also clearly, in his books, telling a fully fleshed-out story, not merely providing a trite translation of Christianity into “fairybook” terms. He uses stories to teach about reality, and the characters in his stories often symbolize certain things about the Christian world, but they also serve as real characters in a real storyline that has merit in and of itself. Thus, while the above reading is legitimate, we must be careful not to change Lewis’ stories into simply a symbolic systematic theology.