Inception and the Lord’s Supper: A Dream within a Dream?

Inception, a mind-bending sci-fi love story takes place within a world where dreams can be infiltrated, ideas can be taken and planted, and reality itself comes to be questioned. As the credits begin to roll you cannot help but ask the question, “what was real?”Or in my case, “That ending better have been real!”

When I first saw the film almost a year ago I couldn’t put my finger on the theological thread. Seeing the movie again a few months ago the thread was dangling again, but it was only as I reflected on a section of my introduction to theology course that it occurred to me…  the Lord’s Supper, time, memory, and the Incarnation. Or more specifically, what does it mean to be within a dream within a dream? What does it mean to be within God’s dream for us?

The story centers upon Cobb, a former “architect,” a person who renders the space of the dream while the dreamer fills the space with his or her own subconscious. Cobb can no longer build these dream spaces himself because of his own diminishing grasp on what is real and what is a dream.

The reason for Cobb’s difficulty rested on a tragic consequence of his vocationa nd experimentation with entering dreams. He and his wife, Mal, had entered into dreams, then dreams within dreams and so on, so deeply that they had lived an entire lifetime within a span of a few minutes of their actual sleeping life (Each time one enters into a dream, time slows such that the time elapsed in the sleeping world is magnified in each subsequent layer of dreaming.)

When Cobb and Mal awoke, Mal could not distinguish between what was true, the life she woke up to or the life of her dream. Mal subsequently killed herself, framing Cobb for her murder because he would not also kill himself and return to the “real world” where their children were.

Consequently, Cobb was outside the law until he is presented with an opportunity to return to his children. But instead of an act of stealing, Cobb was asked to perform an inception. Inception is the process of planting an idea in a person’s mind so deeply that they believe the idea was theirs to begin with. A Highly dangerous mission ensues with Cobb and his colleagues entering into multiples levels of dreams attempting to place a thought within a corporate tycoon, break up his father’s empire.

What was so gripping throughout this film was the flux of time, the pull and power that these worlds of dreams and reality had upon the characters. As the characters moved into dreams time slowed and yet the worlds continued to be somehow connected to one another. To say that the characters entered dreams is not to say that their lives were detached from their bodily lives or to suggest an ideal. And yet within these worlds, whether the dream world or the “real” world, there was always a tension of home, of rootedness.

This week, reflecting on the readings and discussion of Christology and the Lord’s Supper in class, I was brought back to this flux of time and yearning for home. In particular we have been reading a text by Panayiotis Nellas entitled Deification in Christ. Nellas suggests, “The bread of life himself changes the person who feeds on Him, transforms him and assimilates him to Himself.” For Nellas, Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper draws the participant back into Christ’s life for humanity, into the dislocation of time and eternity that was Christ’s life.

Partaking in the meal draws us into Jesus’ enactment or performance of human life, but rather than the bread and wine being absorbed into our bodies, we are absorbed, brought into the life of Christ. This being drawn is not only a mystical union, but a bodily, visceral presence that allows the eating to participate within Jesus’ assumption of human life. In the Lord’s Supper we are taken into God’s time, God’s memory.

Perhaps Inception points to this fluidity or distortion of time and eternity, to a slowing down of action that is both lived into and performed upon us in the midst of a dream within a dream. But what if the dream we are submerged into is not our own dream, but in partaking in the Lord’s Supper we are immersed into God’s dream, into God’s desire for us.

This distortion of time and memory, of what is our thought and the thought of another for us is not a sci-fi innovation, but the confession of the eternal Word enfleshed. Jesus enters into humanity and re-creates us, re-creates time.

Here the flux of the dream, the desire for reality and yet the necessity of one’s actions are a remarkable depiction of what theologians call an eschatological reality, an already, but not yet time, where God’s movement towards us is complete and yet in our own lives we do not yet feel the fullness of that peace in our everyday life.

Entering into the church is entering into this re-created space. We can re-imagine, re-order it and yet even within this space our sense of self can become displaced, it can become a means of control and certainty. Even within this flux we lose sight of the beginning and the end and seek to re-create the world as an object for our fulfillment, for our possession. Put differently, even evil can reside within these dreams.

Could discipleship be this navigation of time and eternity, seeking to perpetually discern the shape of what is home, what is real in an ever dizzying world of possibilities? But perhaps instead of having a totem particular to us (a totem is an item that is used to help center the person who enters a dream so that they know they are awake) our totem is the also the bread and the wine, the body and blood. We are being drawn not out of the dream, but reality exists on the other side of the dream?

Every time the credits roll and I see Cobb re-united with his children I hope it isn’t a dream, I say to myself, surely this was real!

But what if this is the point? My desire for “truth” rests within a notion of time and space that can fit within my creaturely mind. What if this is exactly the illusion? What if my baptism, my partaking in the Lord’s Supper is an immersion into a new form of time, a new end whose resolution is not in being certain of my own mind, but finding that I have been brought into another’s dream? Christ’s entrance into the world draws me into God’s dream.

But part of the brilliance of Inception is to press against the notion that such a claim has nothing to do with our bodily lives. The question of the dream is not the Gnostic question, in other words. Rather the dream is the extension of a biological reality and thus represents a deep union of our body and soul. Within our dream we guard our bodily hopes and desires, fears and pain. The dream is an intensification of our bodily reality.

Read in this way we might recall an earlier Trinitarian metaphor of the Mind-Word-Will. While not perfect, the metaphor sought to articulate the necessity and difference of each person of the Godhead. But through the lens of Inception could we say that the incarnation is a drawing humanity into this Trinitarian life, not one of mere rationality, but a reality of the dream, God’s dream for us?

Could it not be the question of “how,” but “who” (to borrow from Dietrich Bonhoeffer) … whose world, whose dream do we exist within? Who are we for? Who are we with? Is the point our power over the world, or who we are in the world with?

Perhaps this is the incarnation. Jesus’ work is the displacement of certainty, of drawing us into a dream. But within this world we struggle to articulate the true and the real… who are we in this place?

This is the danger for the church… we are in a dream within a dream, deep inside the life of God but as such we are always on the precipice of becoming God’s ourselves of ordering this world towards ourselves, of mistaking reality as the thing we fashion rather than the thing that grounds our existence.

But this shift of time is also our hope, that we are being ushered forward to a place of clarity, to home, where our uncertainty, our traumas will no longer haunt us and turn themselves upon us. Partaking in the Lord’s Supper we exist within a life of possibility, of peace, of promise because our time is not God’s time and yet God abides with us within our time so that we might abide with others.