Playing Tennis at the End of the World

It’s an absurd premise: a tennis coach kidnaps someone to train with his player in preparation for the French open, which isn’t going to happen. They practice and train in the middle of nowhere: on sand, in swampland, on a narrow strip of grass. Oh, and they don’t have any tennis balls, or strings in their racquets, or real nets. And they have to keep moving from place to place because there is an unknown threat from an unknown war.

But in its absurdity and unreality, The Open (2015; streaming here with a subscription or free trial) makes us reconsider what we call “the real world.” Ralph acts as the voice of the viewer; we see things with his eyes. This whole thing is stupid. There’s a war going on out there! You’re kidding, right? You want me to pretend to play tennis and imagine the trajectory of the ball? He tells André that he can’t do it and he’s going to leave. André says, “And go where? Back to the valley?” Ralph says, “You’re f***ed up.” “We’re f***ed up? I saw you and your mates, looting.” Maybe everything in this world is messed up, in one way or another. Which way do you choose? The “real world,” or this world?

That’s the central question of the movie: are André, Stéphanie, and Ralph engaged in escapism, avoiding the real world; or are they living in the world, engaged with each other in the midst of a situation over which they have no control? Which world is, in fact, the absurd one?

In his book The Lost Soul of American Protestantism, D.G. Hart makes the case that the activity that seems most irrelevant in the midst of this world is actually what matters the most. He devotes an entire chapter to my church body, The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which he calls “The Irrelevance of Lutheran Liturgy” (141-165). He writes that “the otherworldliness of confesstional Protestant piety results in a wholesome irrelevance,” in opposition to the methods by which the culture wars are fought by the “pietists.” He calls “pietistic” the forms of Christianity that believe creeds, ceremonies, and sacraments to be largely superficial and external exercises of religion; what is necessary, instead, is a faith that spiritually and morally transforms the world from the inside out, in very public and obvious ways. That transformation of the world begins with an individual conversion experience, but causes believers to live “lives that were visibly different from nonbelievers.”

“The oddness of Lutheran worship, then, extended as much to partisan politics as it did to musical tastes because the purpose of the church and its worship was not to save a nation or a culture but to offer forgiveness to sinners. … [T]he confessional outlook…regards worship as an exercise wholly irrelevant to the warfare of this world, whether cultural, political, or military.” For those who believe that the actions of the Church in her worship are aimed in directions other than toward the wider culture, playing tennis at the end of the world might not seem as absurd as it did at first.

There is a great temptation—not only outside the Church, but within as well—to view things like prayer as obstacles to actually “doing something.” Fine; go ahead and pray. But then do something. And action is necessary for the sake of the people around you. As John says, let us not love in word or talk, but in deed and in truth (1 John 3:18). But the center and heart of Christianity—without which true action in love is impossible—is the passive reception of the love of God in Jesus. And where that is happening, primarily on the Lord’s Day in the Lord’s House, what Christians do is going to appear to be irrelevant and absurd to those who look on from the outside (and maybe to some of those gathering as well).

[SPOILERS]

It is only when what we see and believe what is actually going on that things can be put in their proper places. So it is when Ralph first hears Stéphanie’s music, he is on the outside, though on his way in. Later, it is Ralph who has to sing (very badly) to Stéphanie of grace and of how they, who were lost, have been found. And so they go on, practicing and training, in their wholesome irrelevance.

Though I am sure that very little to none of this is related to the purposes of Marc Lahore, I can’t help but consider from a Christian perspective the invisible game that Ralph and Stéphanie are playing, compared to the fighter jets and anti-aircraft ordnance. What seems real to the world is the war, the battle, the fight down in the valley, from where Ralph has come. Up on the mountain, Stéphanie and Ralph go about their business. In the midst of the battle, they’ve carved out their piece of life.

When André is shot—the war is not so far away after all—he says, “I got shot in the stomach; it’s not the end of the world.” And he tells Stéphanie that no matter what, she has to prepare for the final. He’s speaking, in part, of Roland Garros, but the instructions extend beyond tennis: You’ll have to take risks, he says. That’s the only way to win in the end, for real. You must believe in it to the very end. Believe in the invisible to the very end, even in the midst of visible, encroaching “reality.”

And so Ralph has to convince the panicked Stéphanie to finish out the match: “We don’t give a f*** about death! We don’t give a f*** about wars, or planes. This is Roland Garros!” This is Roland Garros—the very same words that Stéphanie had used to bring Ralph out of a similar state earlier. This is Roland Garros. Who cares if no one can see it but us?

Ralph is not far from the kingdom of God. St. Paul says essentially the same thing (although in a more elevated and less vulgar way): “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” And for André: “For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you” (2 Corinthians 4:7-12).

Compared to everything that the citizens of this creation hold dear, it all seems irrelevant and absurd. Yet, in the midst of the wars, cultural, politically, military, or otherwise: “We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (4:16-18).

Tim and Jay recently recorded an episode of Saints and Cinema on The Open, which should be available on Monday, June 22 at saintsandcinema.com

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