Interpreting Myself Interpreting Inception

May 20, 2011 — 1 Comment

Inception_PosterIn both his recent book on language and his just released book on sociology, Vern Poythress makes an Inception like argument for the ultimate context of human activity.

As we all probably remember from Inception, the storyline culminates in a heist that takes place inside a dream, within a dream, within a dream. Whether or not you’ve seen the movie, you should be able to follow where I’m going.

In the climax of the movie, the main character Cobb (DiCaprio) makes a decision that has ramifications back up the dreamscape into the third dream. The context of his actions down in limbo is that particular dream. However, the context of what takes place in that dream is in the context of the second level dream, which is taking place in the context of the first level dream, which itself is taking place in the context of reality.

In other words, in order to understand the significance of what takes place in the climactic scene in the dream world, you have to interpret it in light of the overall context of the story line taking place presumably not in the dream world. Each individual episode in the dream world is significant because of its place the dream one level up (and so on) as well as in the overall trajectory of the story. Taken out of context, one could feasibly come up with all kinds of radical interpretations for what happens down in limbo before Cobb wakes up.

Now, Poythress, while not making an explicit connection with the structure of Inception applies this interpretive move to all human activity. In order to interpret anything in Inception, I need to have some knowledge of the context of movie-watching in general and the overall narrative of Inception in particular. Part of that might involve knowledge of Christopher Nolan as a film-maker, knowledge of cinematography, and understanding of the cultural activity of film studies. I need to understand something about how films work, and presumably I already have the cultural acquisition of interpreting stories in general so I can then apply it to interpreting Inception.

Interpreting a movie like Inception is something I do as part of a larger context of daily activities. The significance of watching Inception depends on the significance of that particular day’s context (maybe it’s the most significant thing I do all day). It also depends on the significance of my larger life story. A single day in my life is just an episode in a longer running series of episodes that make up my own story. The significance and meaning of a single day’s single activity can’t really be known apart from reckoning with the larger context.

Similarly, my own life story is but a single tv series (to make a metaphor) within the broader culture of various network channels (culture) and long standing series (other people). The relative significance of a single moment within a single episode of a single series on a single channel can’t really be judged without reference to the larger context in which it takes part. But TV itself is just one cultural activity among many. How significant the medium of TV is (and our particular culture) has to be judged against the backdrop of the history of cultural activity (i. e. world history).

Shifting out of the metaphor, the significance of a single activity I do (watching and interpreting a movie) is judged against my own day’s activity, my larger life story, the larger cultural story, and the larger story of world history. World history itself is part of a the larger story of God’s redemptive story, which can itself only be understood against the backdrop of the character of God himself as revealed to us in Scripture.

While I’m sure Christopher Nolan never intended this, the structure he put into Inception that requires a little bit of work on our part to follow the storyline is very much like the context of every human cultural activity itself. Everything we do is part of a story (our life) within a story (our culture) within a story (world history) within a story (redemption history). We can’t interpret our individual activities apart from the larger context which is eventually only understood in reference to God and his revelation of Himself found in Scripture.

In other words, unless I interpret myself interpreting Inception in a self-consciously Christian fashion that takes God and redemption history as the ultimate context for interpretation, I will always take things slightly out of context. God is the larger reality that makes sense of my own activity down within this story.

The dream within a dream structure of Inception is clever (and probably implausible in our reality) but if we look at it with eyes to see, there is an insight into how our own reality is structured. Part of this is because Nolan, made as he is in the image of God, will create things on his own that image God’s creation. The reason the dream within dream structure is intriguing and fascinating is because it rings so true to how the world really is. Nolan labored for 8-10 years (depending on how you reckon) to make the Inception story and structure work. The end result shows it. But it also shows us much more if we are willing to look a little closer. When we interpret a film in light of its overall place in the story and plan of God, things that seems strange turn out to feel very real.

Now that is an elegant solution for keeping track of reality.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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