Years ago, when I attended a private Christian school, the teachers felt it was their duty to push us out of our comfort zones. Stretching the minds of coddled middle class youths is a noble venture to say the least, especially if these youths are to have any positive impact on the society around them. They need their eyes opened; they need to become aware that a not-so-pleasant world exists outside their bubbles.
For that reason, one of our teachers showed us the film Babette’s Feast at the beginning of senior year, and then again at the end of senior year. Our understanding for the film was supposed to have improved by the end of the year. In college, I had a literary criticism professor who used the same trick of examining a poem at the beginning of the semester, and then again at the end to demonstrate how much he’d opened our eyes. At the start, the words of the poem were innocent, but by the end, they were teeming with sexuality and Marxism. Most assuredly he had opened our eyes; all of that symbolism was now present and would always be. Once the eyes of the mind are opened, it’s difficult to shut them again.
To be fair, our high school teacher wasn’t opening our eyes to hidden sexuality. Rather, he was opening our mind to art. The plot of Babette’s Feast goes like this: a group of Puritanical plain-living Christians gasp out a meager living on a remote stretch of Danish coastline, keeping to themselves and their dwindling congregation. The story revolves around two sisters, once beautiful, who have never married because their austere father found no suitor acceptable for them. These Christians have no joy in their lives. They eat plainly, dress plainly, and eschew entertainment. One day, a Frenchwoman, Babette, knocks at the sisters’ door with a letter of recommendation as a housekeeper and cook. The woman is a refugee of revolutionary France. The sisters take compassion on the worldly woman and open their home to her. Then, Babette receives notice that she’s won the French lottery and, in celebration, offers to cook a special meal for the sisters and the other congregants. As it turns out, she’s a highly-regarded French chef who serves them an exotic feast, complete with multiple courses of rich foods and alcohol. Initially, the sisters accept her offer out of graciousness for the heathen woman who simply doesn’t know any better. By the end, the congregants of a dry Christian faith are the ones transformed by the artist. Their eyes have been opened to the beauty of the world–to love and passion–and will never easily close again.
The sisters assume that Babette will now leave them, no longer be their housekeeper, because she’s wealthy with her 10,000 francs. But, no, Babette explains, a meal such as that–for twelve people–comes at a cost of 10,000 francs. Babette has given everything she has to thank these people who took her in. One of the sisters proclaims, “Now you will be poor the rest of your life!” Ah, but Babette knows the correct answer: “An artist is never poor.”
Here is a potential Christian reading of the film: Living in an impoverished way in order to please God isn’t Christianity. By extension, a lovely meal of food and wine isn’t in any way in opposition to Christianity. Beauty, pleasure–these are gifts from God. But we aren’t saved by them. The artist didn’t save the stuffy Christians from themselves by giving them the essential truth they were lacking. Yes, they were lacking in love, and Babette offered her love to them. Human love is limited, though, and it isn’t the ultimate truth in contrast to pious Christian living. These sisters and their congregants were truly lacking in the joy that comes through following after Christ, of being renewed inside by Christ’s sacrifice. These people knew nothing of the joy of God. Nothing. They only knew of forced deprivation. At best, Babette is a reflection of the kind of love God offers to us–God being the original Creator and Artist. I’m not one for preaching in film. In a Christian reading of it, the film works on that level. It doesn’t need to be more explicit than that.
Here is a potential secular–>Christian reading of the film: An artist is never poor. Babette herself tells us this. Furthermore, artists have gifts to give us that will teach us and fill our lives, regardless of who they are or what they create. If they are self-sacrificial, then they’ve done all that’s required of them as artists. This is, perhaps, the crux of the secular reading that I’ve retained–the concept of artist as savior, artist as sacrificial giver of truth. Perhaps I’ve retained that understanding because it’s what this particular teacher was attempting to impart to us throughout our senior year.* Art is able to open our eyes, and we will, by extension, never be poor so long as our lives are enriched by it. The more mature we are, the more we’ve grown up in the faith, the more we’ll be able to understand this truth and be able to sift through the filth to discover the flecks of gold hidden inside. Art is a mirror of the beauty and depravity of humanity, and we need to look in this mirror and see ourselves reflected there.
In our postmodern society that grasps for truth–any truth–I’ve been observing Christian people blindly choosing the second reading and following after art as though it will offer them the answers they’re desperately seeking. However, they’re no longer youths sitting in a classroom watching Babette’s Feast. The kind of artwork they’re exploring, interacting with, and learning from isn’t a beautiful feast created out of a grateful heart, but work created from blasphemy, mockery, and hatefulness. Ironically, the simple takeaway message of Babette is really quite pure. Yet, the wrong message many of us have taken from it–that art in itself is sacrificially true–has led us to learn from works that contain no such simple truths.
*I edited this post a little and decided to add this disclaimer. The teacher I’m talking about would never have stated things quite as simply as I’ve done here. Thankfully, one of his articles on art has been preserved on the internet, and I’ll be examining it next time.