CAN AN AGNOSTIC BE DIVINELY INSPIRED? “Babette’s Feast” Is a Eucharistic Allegory From an Unlikely Author

You probably know at least a little about Danish baroness and plantation owner Karen von Blixen-Finecke. She was the heroine (Meryl Streep) who had a passionate but ultimately doomed love affair with a free-spirited big-game hunter (Robert Redford) in the 1985 romantic drama Out of Africa. She was an author who wrote under the pen name “Isak Denisen.”

But you may not remember that she was an agnostic.

My husband and I recently pulled out our copy of the film Babette’s Feast (Danish: Babettes Gæstebud), which won the 1987 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The story was originally published, I understand, in Ladies Home Journal—and it was recreated in film by esteemed Danish writer and director Gabriel Axel.

Babette’s Feast is Dinesen’s parable about two spinster sisters who, once beautiful young women, had forsaken their chances at romance and fame, taking hollow refuge in religion and caring for their father, a pastor of a stern Christian sect in a rough Danish coastal town.

The sisters are named Martine (after Martin Luther) and Philippa (after Luther’s close friend Philip Melanchthon). [This is an important factoid—more on this later.]

* * * * *

The sisters are approaching old age when Babette Hersant appears at their door carrying a letter of recommendation from Philippa’s former suitor. Babette is a refugee from the French counter-revolution; and the sisters cautiously agree to take her in as a housekeeper. For fourteen years, Babette works as their cook and housekeeper—gradually warming the town with her generosity and pleasant demeanor. One day, she wins the French lottery; but rather than return to her hometown, she decides to use the money to prepare a delicious feast for the sisters and the small religious congregation on the founding pastor’s hundredth birthday.

Babette, in a lavish expression of generosity, spends her entire winnings on the banquet. Not simply an epicurean delight, the meal is the means by which Babette expresses her gratitude and her love for the sisters who sheltered her.

The wary townspeople—unprepared for such a lavish pallet of strange new foods, distrustful of a Catholic foreigner such as Babette, and unaccustomed to joy—secretly determine to eat the meal without commenting, to consume without truly appreciating the generous repast.

But as the guests experience the rich flavors and beautiful presentation of the extraordinary banquet, they are moved—and they are gradually transformed by joy. The director amplifies this joy with color, focusing on the delectable dishes, bringing a pallette of rich colors into the cool whites and grays of the sisters’ modest home. And as the color intensifies, so, too, does laughter and pleasure and love.

* * * * *

What does it all mean?

  • The Washington Post called Babette’s Feast “edible art,” a tour de force for the taste buds.
  • Marjorie Baumgarten, writing in the Austin Chronicle, called it the “food in film” equivalent of Valhalla.
  • Christopher Null at sees in Babette’s Feast a seminal work about repressed emotions and self-doubt.

A foodie film? A gloomy story of repression?

Well, yes but…. for a Christian, the parallel to the Eucharist, to a heavenly Feast, is striking. In her sacrifice, her pouring out of her resources in an expansive love, Babette is a riveting Christ-figure. The satiating meal, an earthly parallel to the heavenly banquet, is eucharistic. And the grace it imparts, the rich outpouring of emotion among the gloomy Danish congregants, mirrors the spiritual life-giving nourishment of the Eucharist.

But curiously, Isak Dinesen herself seems to have been limited by her secularism, incapable of applying the story’s imagery within the context of faith. Raised in a Unitarian household, she drew upon the Old and New Testaments and other spiritual works for her themes; but she remained an agnostic, never raising her eyes toward the heavens to gaze upon the transcendent God. Her personal life was marred by a failed marriage and unsatisfying relationships. She was addicted to painkillers, and she died in 1962 of malnutrition—starving both physically and spiritually.

So to the question in my title:   Can an agnostic be divinely inspired?

My answer is a resounding “Yes.” It seems that Dinesen reached beyond herself, beyond her wildest imaginings, to reveal a Truth which she, lacking true faith, could not understand.

* * * * *

Now about Martine and Philippe, and their famed namesakes Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon:

Melanchthon, the younger and lesser known friend of Martin Luther, labored with him to reform the church. However, there is an interesting difference between the two: Whereas Luther stood firmly on his self-constructed platform of “justification by faith,” Melanchthon was more moderate. He agreed that one must have faith; but also, he taught, one must demonstrate one’s faith by works.

The two friends are buried side by side at the Castle Church in Wittenberg. I’ve read that Martin Luther has a statue of Mary at his grave.

  • Sarah

    Thank you so much for writing about this story. The movie is one of the most Catholic films I’ve ever seen, and I thought I was crazy for thinking so. No movie stands out so much as demonstrating the grace of God and the good joys of abundance. So I wholeheartedly agree that if Dinesen was an agnostic and managed to write the story (which is also beautiful), then God inspires even the unbelieving to unknowingly preach His presence to the world.

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  • father steve

    Take a look at Father Robert Barron’s analysis of this film in relation to the Church’s theology and spirituality of the Blessed Sacrament in his book entitled Eucharist.

  • Claire

    I’ve never seen it but I have seen several other works written or produced by professed atheists and agnostics who must definitely have been divinely inspired.

  • Manny

    Fantastic. I will have to seek out this story. Apparently yes, an agnostic can be divinely inspired. But you see creativity, especially fiction writing, has a process beyond oneself. The author writes a story, but it may not mean exactly what he intended. “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.” – DH Lawrence.

  • Dismas

    I saw Babettes’s Feast on TV, I think on PBS, over 25 years ago. At the time, the movie’s Eucharistic religious allegory was lost on me, but the impact this film made will never be forgotten. The beauty and simplicity of this film and story was absolutely hypnotic, astonishing, stunning and transcendent. Few films have I ever enjoyed so much!

  • Linus

    Don’t know anything about Babette, but in the Old Testament God spoke through unworthy Prophets and through pagans as well, not ofter but it did happen. But sometimes these men came to a bad end. Actually, God speaks through us all, we just don’t realize it.

  • Peggy R

    I read Out of Africa a few years back. It is autobiographical of course. The Catholic missionaries were frequently mentioned in her book. She speaks of attending Catholic mass, I think a Christmas midnight mass. She had much interaction with the French priests and nuns who were in Kenya. I found several Catholic themes in the book. Do check it out. I have not read Babette’s Feast, but perhaps her ability to write a Catholic allegorical story may be more clear after reading OOA.

  • Bain Wellington

    The Eucharistic analogy does not work for me. There was no true sacrifice by Babette since she was giving up a wholly gratuitous benefit, and in preparing the feast she was engaged in a consummate act of self-realisation, granted that she had been a celebrated chef in Paris and had never been able to express her talent in exile. Sure, the money might have allowed her to return to Paris, but after 20 years . . . ?

    By contrast, Martine and Philippa had, in their different ways, totally sacrificed themselves in order to look after their father – one giving up the chance of a career as a singer, and the other giving up the chance of a glittering marriage – but they were not poisoned or shrivelled by this sacrifice.

    For me, the entire story is a celebration of the truth “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Ac.20:35) a dominical saying not found in the Gospels.

  • MissJean

    That is one of my favourite films. I had worn out the VHS, what with watching it myself and lending it to others, long before it was released on DVD.

    FYI Babette’s Feast is a good example of what happens when one secularizes a story. The English dubbed version (the only form available for a time) strips the religious language. Imagine the scene of the general (played by Jarl Kulle) without saying “justice and mercy shall kiss.” Yes, that bad.

  • Veritas

    If Baalam’s ass can prophecy, and Caiaphas can be inspired to speak the truth without realizing what he is saying, it is possible that an agnostic can be inspired; but any inspiration will not benefit them unto salvation. Withouth supernatural faith (which requires explicit belief in the Trinity and Incarnation, and at least implicit belief in the other articles of Faith) they are children of wrath and cut off from God. If they die in the state they will, without any doubt, go to hell for eternity.

    I don’t think we do the unbelievers any service by pretending that they are divinely inspired. They are public sinners against the first two commandments, and as such are to be pittied, not praised.

  • Thomas R

    “since she was giving up a wholly gratuitous benefit”

    I don’t think that’s entirely true. Going by the movie at least I got the sense the money could have allowed her to return to a, now peaceful as I recall, France and be a respected chef again. Instead she uses the money to help the people who helped her. I mean sure the money was a prize, but she does in a way “give up” something by her choice of how to use it. For me staying with somewhat dour Danes, when you could back to France and have fun again, was a pretty big sacrifice in its way.

    Still I don’t know the film is necessarily intending the feast to be “Eucharistic.” And although I’m surprised the writer was agnostic I don’t know if “Make a sacrifice for the people who helped you when you were down” is something an agnostic could never think on her own.

    I like the movie, but I admit some of the dreariness to get to the end was maybe a little too dreary for me.

  • Mouse

    I saw this movie a number of years ago and I hated it, and not just because it was incredibly boring. I hated it because I had been told in advance that it was symbolic of the eucharist. If that is so, it seemed to me at the end that the hidden message is that people who sin should just be included in the eucharist anyway, even if they don’t repent.

    The reason I say that is that if you look at who is at the table at the end, if I recall correctly, two of the people there were people who were living in sin (I can’t remember if it’s because they had an affair and left their lawful spouses or what – it’s been like 15 years! Maybe someone else can recall.) I took the message to be one of forgiveness without repentence or conversion of life, which is not what Jesus taught. Perhaps that would not be surprising since Out of Africa rather glorifies adultery (on the excuse of a loveless marriage I suppose).

    Maybe that’s reading more into it than is there – but for that reason – again, if memory serves correctly – it shouldn’t be applauded as a eucharist metaphor, as I have heard some do.

  • Brad

    Sadly I must agree with the minority that Babette’s food is not Eucharistic, but rather a mockery.

    Babette made this gesture toward her friends and employers (cf. Matthew 5:47) because she wanted to repay them for their kindness (was it kindness or merely tolerance or merely employ, after all?) toward her while she was their employee and, to some others, while she was their neighbor. That is, Babette felt some nebulous debt, mixed with a kind gesture, should to be repaid distinctly from her to them. Thus, the unflattering comparisons with our Lord begin to flow. Christ may have been the suffering servant, but he was not an employee, the nature of whom is that he owes work for his wage in return. He was not a debtor (real or perceived) to us. His meal is not a repayment to us. It is a Sacrificial repayment to the Father. The true heartache, as opposed to what it would otherwise be, which is the pablum of Babette, of the Incarnation and Passion is that Christ paid a debt that I owed, that Adam owed, and that mankind owed, but not that Christ owed. That is true charity. Babbette’s “charity” is a greatly lesser version, if one at all: “feel good” kindness to one’s friends (where was the town’s rich man’s Lazarus while this bourgeois feast was going on?), the corporeal mercy of a full belly (can already well fed friends and finicky gastronomes being stuffed with gluttony be called a corporeal work?), repayment of a perceived debt, as I said.

    Additionally, as I mentioned, Christ’s meal is a obliterating Sacrifice of self. Babbette not only did not sacrifice herself (she sacrificed some of her time and energy, yes), but she did this all in response to winning a lottery: easy come easy go is not a sacrifice. A sacrifice is when you spend your life savings on the ingredients, not money you didn’t have yesterday and that you can reconcile living alright without tomorrow. It is a sweet gesture but entirely mundane and human and must not be placed in proximity to Christ.

    Thus we see how even beginning to make comparisons between this feast and Christ’s feast shows the former to be what used to be clearly perceived as being anti-Christ. A mockery. A well-meaning (perhaps) yet false, threadbare copy. The demon cannot create anything, so he merely perverts truth and his presence is easily seen in perversions, however charming.

    I have read I think all of Karen Dinesen’s books. She was the recipient of actual graces, as are we all. But sanctifying grace is what we hang on. Her life is a cautionary tale and we need to pray for her repose now.

    Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine. Et lux perpetua luceat ei. Requiescat in pace. Amen.