Unlocking ‘Inception’ (and a reference to 1999)

“You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in the subject’s mind.”

Eames states these words in a conversation with Cobb as the two discuss the idea of inception – successfully planting an idea in a subject’s mind.   The characters, played by Tom Hardy and Leonardo DiCaprio, respectively, unlock the key to Christopher Nolan’s 2010 movie, Inception, with this sentence.   The movie, unfortunately to some puzzling and not worth the time to figure out, is both complicated with its plot layers, yet at the same time more simple than we first realize.   Therein lies the beauty of the story.

In a way, it reminds me of the story of God and his creation: complicated layers of depth and meaning in its plot, yet very simple to understand in the theme that unlocks it.   But, just as in Inception, the simplicity needs the complexity and the complexity needs the simplicity in order to tell the story in the best way possible.   It is the only way to grasp the full and nuanced detail yet focused truth.

Granted, I finally saw the movie almost three years after it first came out; therefore this post might be a little late.   Oh well!   However, Inception is perhaps one of the best and most original stories out there.   The greatness of Inception is that the film does just that – inception – to the viewer’s mind, especially in light of the final scene.

There are two possibilities to explain the movie.   The first is that there was indeed a level of reality evidenced by Arthur, Ariadne, Eames, Saito, Yusuf, etc.   From this level of reality, the crew progressed into dreams in order to work in Fischer’s subconscious.   This understanding is more clear cut and easier to handle.   However, the problem with this idea is that, considered against the second possibility, this explanation renders the movie flat and without an extremely rich layer of storytelling, depth, and meaning.   If you are one who is happy and content with this idea, read no further.

The other possibility is that the only layer of reality was the relationship between Cobb and his wife, Mal.   Therefore, what we viewed throughout the entire movie was Cobb’s dream – a dream that ended up being at least five layers deep.   But here are the inevitable questions: why? and so what was the point of the movie then?   I point you to Eames’ words: “You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in the subject’s mind.”   In a single word – inception.   The point of the movie: planting an idea in Cobbs’ mind. But even more masterful and genius in Nolan’s storytelling: planting an idea in the viewer’s mind.

In addition to other negative emotions from his wife’s death, Cobb was overcome by guilt, shame, anger, and depression.   Forgiveness – again, think of Eames’ statement – was being planted into Cobb’s mind so that healing could finally occur in his life.   The movie was not about Fischer and his father at all, but solely about Cobb’s healing.   This “simplest version of the idea” is present in the movie’s themes: forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing.

In the story of God and his creation, of which humanity is a critical part, there is a word that encompasses forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing.   It is the theme present throughout of all scripture.   It is both the “simplest version of the idea” and the key to unlocking scripture’s complexities and nuanced detail in order to find its focused truth.   This word is love.   More specifically, it is God’s love.   It is holy love.

The themes in Inception are demonstrated clearly with the forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing between Fischer and his father; however, this storyline is meant to illustrate and label these ideas so that we can apply them to what the story is actually about, Cobb’s overcoming of his own pain, anguish, and guilt.   Forgiveness and reconciliation are shown to Cobb – ‘incepted’ to Cobb if you will – so that he can finally see and apply these ideas as his own, and therefore be able to finally heal from his own trauma.

With this idea, the rest of the characters are projections of his own subconscious; his children, too, would be projections meant to symbolize the hope of healing in the story and the act of healing itself when he finally sees their faces.   It is a possibility that some of the characters, such as his father, could be the ones performing inception, though it is not critical to know who.    Moreover, the viewers see just how far his guilt is buried in his own being; he must go five layers deep in order to finally come face to face with his guilt and forgive himself. We also see the elaborate systems of protection that his subconscious has created in order to bury his source of pain, rather than confront it.

And while this understanding is a much richer understanding of both the complexity and simplicity of the story, the final scene is the pinnacle of Inception; the final scene is inception.   I asked myself – why would Nolan leave the end open in such a way that we do not know if the final scene was reality or a dream, with the top spinning in such a way where it could be either one?   The answer to this question shapes whether my first or second explanation is more plausible.

The answer is that it does not matter.   It is not supposed to matter.   Remember Eames’ words: “You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in the subject’s mind.”   The simplest version of the idea is forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing.   Although in my second explanation they are revealed in a much deeper and more profound way, these are themes that are present in both understandings!   So whether the movie ends in a dream or reality, Nolan’s point hinges on neither – “the simplest version of the idea” remains the same.

Herein lies the brilliance of Inception, a movie, where similar to our dreams, we thought we were going to escape for a few hours: Nolan is able to perform inception on those who viewed the movie.   The viewers ask the question of whether it was a dream or reality, eventually coming to a conclusion on what really happened, while the “simplest idea” of forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing is planted within the viewers mind.

He quite literally spells out the answer to the last scene as soon as the movie is over.   Was it a dream or reality?   It does not matter; it is Inception.   It is incredible and genius storytelling.

However, the idea of inception existed long before Christopher Nolan was even born; it is an idea evident in God and his relationship to humanity, although not necessarily so subversive.   God gives us a choice in the matter.   Humanity was originally created to be together with God, operating in a perfect union with him and bound together in holy love to experience true life.   “The simplest version of the idea” was, and still is, love.   It was what gives people life, goodness, and an opportunity to participate in the kingdom and work of God.   In sinfulness and selfishness, though, humanity separated itself from a true understanding of life and love; as a result, we have death and all of its consequences.   We unfortunately see the effects of death all too often in our world.

But God is still there, calling to us everyday, attempting to plant a seed within us that there is something more to life than what appears on the surface; he is working to bring us back toward him.   For some, that seed takes hold and grows naturally; others might deny that seed.   But no matter who we are and whether or not we have denied the idea before, God is still calling to us with this “simplest version of the idea”: love.   It is up to us to accept it; in accepting it, we realize the forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing that Cobb experienced, but on a much deeper and cosmic level.   It does not matter how deep our guilt, shame, or depression is buried, or what walls we’ve built around it, God can and will break through if we allow him so that we may experience true life and love in God.   In communion with God, we return to the way we were created to be.

There was another movie released in 1999 which suggested ideas of a dreamworld and a harsh reality.   In The Matrix (yes – it’s already been 14 years!), when a person was unplugged, one realized the truth of what was happening; but the truth of reality was not as easy as living in the Matrix.   This may serve as a good warning to us: in choosing life in God, there will be times of difficulty when our faith will be stretched.   Christ warns us of this multiple times; nonetheless, there is truth, hope, and love in God.   We are no longer under the bondage and delusions that sin offers.   The truth is ultimately better than living in the Matrix.

God is calling us, each and every human being living on the planet, back to him.   His Spirit is planting seeds even in the most unknowing mind that might one day grow and mature.   God has extended grace to all the creation, evidenced by the work of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; it is a reality offered to each one of us with life in God through the Spirit and Christ.   It is an opportunity for true life and love and an opportunity to begin to break free from the constraints of sin and death.

It was not only the first inception, but it is the continuing inception at work in all people.   I pray that this “simplest version of the idea” might begin to take hold in each of us today!

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Thoughts on Easter: “Spiritual but not Religious”

A large number of people label themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”   I can understand this viewpoint; for some it is because of bad experiences with a major world religion, such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.   For others, it is not necessarily because of a previous experience, but just that they are skeptical of the idea of “organized religion.”   Still, some may want to explore different religions before jumping into one; it is dipping one’s feet into the water before fully diving in.   In any case, and no matter what category a person falls under, the individuals who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” recognize that there is something more to life than simply going after common and vain pursuits such as money and power.

However, the label “spiritual but not religious” is misleading; it implies that there is also a group of people who are “not spiritual and not religious.”   To be honest, I do not think it is even possible to be “not spiritual.”   The idea that one could not have a spiritual self at all, or that one could completely destroy or kill one’s spiritual self, does not make any sense.

The spirit is a characteristic of the physical body.   It’s like saying one is one; it simply is.   If you’ve read my previous post, “He’s living on the inside, roaring like a lion,” you’ll get a better idea of where I am coming from in stating this.   God created us; God breathed life into us, giving us a spirit.   In this life, the body and the spirit are inseparable.   They are intertwined into one existence – the human being.   What happens to the spirit after death, we do not know exactly (check out N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope); we have many ideas though.   Although, as a minister in Christianity, I believe that at the end of this sinful age there will be a resurrection of the dead and our spirit will return to our body through God’s power; we will live as one existence of the intertwined and inseparable physical and spiritual human being – the way God designed us to be – in a new eternal creation free from the bondage of death.   This is what is supported by Christian scripture and thousands of years of tradition.

There is no one who is “not spiritual.”   It is impossible.   We are all spiritual beings.   Granted, different people may deny or accept the reality of their spirituality on different levels, in effect, respectively, either suffocating or cultivating who they are.   But we are all spiritual on some level.   And as we become more in tune with ourselves, we realize that there is much more to life than simply the pursuit of vain items and materialism.   We begin to realize the importance of the connections that exist within this world.

Jesus summarized it as he echoed the Jewish Shema of Deuteronomy 6: “Jesus answered, ‘The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these'” (Mark 12:29-31).

A few weeks ago in one of my classes at the U.S. Army Chaplain Basic Officer Leadership Course, one of my Chaplain instructors gave us his thoughts on a definition of spirituality: it is a person connecting with the four c’s – the creator, the community, the conscience, and the creation.   Even if it is at a very basic level, we are all making these connections; we are becoming more in tune to the bigger picture of life.   And as a Christian, I believe God made each one of us to have a role in this bigger picture; God created us to be people who are not selfish individuals, but selfless people who are always recognizing the connections we have.

Religion is a vital tool in developing this spirituality.   Through religion, we cultivate and grow these connections and relationships.   And perhaps most importantly, we learn to first develop our connection with God so that we can better develop our connections with the community, the conscience, and the creation.   On our own, it is impossible to cultivate these connections.   But through a connection with God, and with God working in us and changing our hearts, our other connections will grow into something we never believed was possible.

Christianity is based on the person of Jesus Christ; this religion is centered on Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.   Through Christ, we can experience the amazing love of God in his grace, forgiveness, and mercy, despite all that we have done wrong in life.   Through Christ, we can become connected with God.   And through that connection with God, we can learn to truly love one another.   We can begin to understand ourselves, how we fit into the bigger picture of life, and be free from vain pursuits.

During this Easter season, I pray that no matter where we are on our spiritual journeys, whether we are struggling to take the very first step or have already been traveling for a thousand miles, we will begin to see the ultimate form of spirituality as a relationship with Christ.   I pray that we will use the tools that thousands of years of the Christian tradition have given us to develop our connections with the creator, the community, the conscience, and the creation.   I pray that we will explore and reflect on different aspects of what it means to be a Christian in whatever context we find ourselves in today.   I pray that we will begin to learn how to worship God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.   And I pray that we learn to love our neighbors in the same way that we love ourselves.

This week is Holy Week in western Christianity. Soon our brothers and sisters in eastern Christiany will also be celebrating these Holy days of the Christian calendar.  Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday – this week is the pinnacle event of Christianity.   The significance of these days for our lives is the culmination of what it means to know ourselves and recognize our spirituality.   The life, death, and resurrection of the Christ and the Messiah is the sum of what our connections to the creator, the community, the conscience, and the creation mean in each of our lives.

Happy Easter.   Christ has risen.   Let us celebrate.

“He’s living on the inside, roaring like a lion.”

The relatively recent Newsboys single, “God’s Not Dead (Like a Lion)” has new meaning for me tonight.   The simple words of the chorus, “God’s not dead; he’s surely alive. He’s living on the inside, roaring like a lion,” have a deeply profound meaning for every single human being on this planet.

Tonight I had an amazing experience; I could even qualify it as a religious experience.   I want to give you fair warning though – once you learn the details of this experience, you may not think of it as amazing or religious at all, but fairly gruesome and morbid.   That is okay!   To each their own, right?   But I encourage you to continue reading anyway.

I have been finishing the Chaplain Basic Officer Leadership Course with the U.S. Army over the past several weeks (CH-BOLC Class 13-001 Hooah!); as part of our training we visited a local medical school and had the chance to look at, touch, and examine cadavers; these are people who have donated their deceased bodies to the school to be used for science.   We talked with medical professors and students, learning about all of the incredible systems of the human body.   But here is what you may think is morbid – I held a human brain in my hands.   I held a human heart.   I held a lung.   I held many other various parts of the body, like a leg and a stomach and a head.

I know – it may make some people queasy.   It may make you reading this right now queasy.   I was nervous that I might get queasy before I walked in to the room with the cadavers.

But I didn’t get queasy.   In fact, the entire time I was there, I could not help but think to myself that the human body is absolutely amazing.   It has extremely complex systems that all work together cohesively.   Muscles are interconnected all over the body.   The lungs, the heart, the airway, the esophagus, and who knows what other parts (I am by no means a medical doctor), were all packed tightly together inside the ribcage like pieces of well integrated and almost woven puzzle, protected by bones and muscle.   The stomach and other organs were right underneath it.

There is the spine protecting a sensitive power cord leading down the back, pulling and sending information from all over the body back and forth to the brain, all within fractions of fractions of fractions of milliseconds.   Then there is the brain, which doctors are constantly learning about more and more, which is basically a living computer more powerful and more complex than any other information system in the world.   Even inside the skull, it is protected by a “tough mother” (quite literally dura mater) which is perhaps some of the strongest material on the planet.

All of this, together, forms who we are as self-aware, living, breathing, moving, intelligent, creative, emotional, spiritual, and every other adjective that you could insert, human beings.

And as I listened to the doctors, professors, and medical students, I realized just how much of an absolute miracle the human body is.   Whether perfected by God over millions of years or created in a single day, there can be no argument that its creation was guided by the hand of a powerful, intelligent, and loving God.

But that is just a description of a lifeless human body being examined by students!   Somehow life itself once pulsed throughout that body.   Somehow that heart got its very own self-sustaining electrical current that makes it pump blood through the body every day.   Somehow that brain received a consciousness making the person aware of who they are and what they are doing in life.   Self-awareness and everything that comes with it – this characteristic is only true of the human being.   That simple fact makes us realize that there is something more to us; there is something to the idea that the human is possibly the culmination of the creation and that we have great responsibilities as that pinnacle being.

But what brought consciousness to us?   What made us aware of who we are?   What changed the human from a lifeless body in the dust to a living, breathing, moving, intelligent, emotional, spiritual, and every other adjective that you could insert, human being?   And what separated us from every other magnificent animal which is out there roaming the earth?

Genesis 2:7 gives us an answer: “…then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”

God has breathed life into every single one of us.   Every human that has ever walked the ground, they have been alive and known who they were because of the breath of God, sustaining them in life.   God’s Spirit gives us life.   God’s Spirit, breathed into every single one of us, and whether we want to recognize it or deny it, is the only reason we are living, breathing, moving, intelligent, creative, emotional, spiritual, and every other adjective that you could insert, human beings.   God’s Spirit is the reason we are self-aware and the reason God has given us this great responsibility as the culmination of creation.   God’s Spirit is the reason why our hearts beat every day, pumping blood through our bodies so that we can walk, run, laugh, breathe, talk, write, play music, and just share life with one another.

God created us in his image.   It’s an image of God himself: love.   We are sustained in life and in love only by his Spirit.   Apart from his Spirit we are dying creatures.   In his Spirit, we learn to truly live as we were created to be.   This gives us a clue that to love one another is a critical element of life itself, an essential piece of understanding the meaning of life.

Unfortunately, each one of us will die.   It’s simply the result of the overwhelming amount of separation there is from God, our sustainer, in the world; there’s nothing we can do to stop ourselves from dying.   It’s just the way it is.

But I want to share some hope with you as you finish reading this short article: one day, at the end of this age, God will once again breathe life into our bodies.   We will be raised from the dead, and upon God examining the condition of our hearts, God will permit us to live in an eternal paradise of a new creation, free from any kind of death, and with Christ as our King.   God will draw our physical bodies together once again from whatever state of decay they may be in, whether they are buried in the ground, cremated into ashes, or even if they are cadavers donated to a medical school so students can learn and advance in scientific knowledge, and then God will breathe life into us once again.   We will awaken into true life with God.

Today, you are alive (duh, right?)!   God’s breath is in you right now!   God’s Spirit is in you, whether you accept it or whether you vehemently deny it; God is within you, causing your heart to beat, your brain to think, and your thoughts to consider these very words that I have written.   It is something to rejoice in!   It is something to truly be in awe of!   It is a reason to love others and love God with everything that you are!

So as I conclude my thoughts, I leave you once more with the words to the chorus of the recent Newsboys song:

“God’s not dead; he’s surely alive.
He’s living on the inside, roaring like a lion.”