Perhaps you’re reading this article and you grew up in a Christian home, or you went to a Christian high school or university. Did you ever get the feeling that serving God meant forsaking pleasure? I feel like sometimes, I thought that, and I’m sure that there are millions of people out there who rejected Christianity because they were taught that in order to follow Christ, one must never have fun or enjoy life. And while part of this is true, I don’t believe all the way that the Christian life means putting aside all pleasure. There may in fact be pleasure that is good! And that, to me, is what the film “Babette’s Feast” is all about.
“Babette’s Feast” is a Danish film from 1987 which won the Academy Award that year for Best Foreign Film. Babette (Stephane Audran) is somewhat of a main character, but the story does not start out revealing her background. It begins with the story of Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer), two sisters who grew up in a Christian sect in nineteenth-century Denmark. As they grew up, their father rejected the idea of them marrying, and the two women remained single their whole lives, though at one point each courted by two well-off men. Thirty-five years later, the father has been long gone, and the two women still live together in their village running their decreasing congregation.
One day, Babette knocks on their door. She has fled from Paris during wartime, and one of Philippa’s former suitors has recommended her to be their housekeeper and cook. She works for them for fourteen years, and then one day, a lottery ticket that her friend has for her back in Paris wins: Babette now has ten thousand francs. But instead of immediately going back to her home, Babette decides to stay with Martine and Philippa and prepare a great feast for the hundredth birthday of the sect’s founder.
When Babette starts bringing in ingredients for the banquet, even some from Paris, the sisters are nervous. They are thankful for what Babette is doing for them, but they are afraid that the banquet will bring out some kind of carnal, sinful desire in their feasting congregation. The people talk about it before the banquet starts, and they decide to eat the meal but not mention anything about the food or its quality at the table.
The day of the banquet comes, and one man arrives whom the congregation did not expect: General Lorens Löwenheilm (Jarl Kulle), a Swedish cavalry officer and Martine’s former suitor. He, of course, has no idea that the congregation has planned not to speak of the food, and so when everyone finally sits down to eat, he can’t stop talking. He compares the banquet to a similar meal he ate at the Café Anglais in Paris. Soon, the rest of the congregation can’t help but compliment Babette on the quality of the food, for which she is very grateful.
After the meal, however, Martine and Philippa realize how important this banquet was to Babette. They think she is now simply going to return to Paris, but it turns out that Babette used all ten thousand francs she had to prepare the meal: she tells them that a similar meal for twelve people at the Café Anglais would cost the same amount.
MARTINE: Now you’ll be poor for the rest of your life!
BABETTE: An artist is never poor.
And as Martine and Philippa realize the sacrifice Babette has made, Philippa stands and tells her, closing the film out:
PHILIPPA: In Paradise, you will be the great artist that God meant you to be. Ah, how you will delight the angels!
It seems that Babette’s feast was more than just carnal pleasure. It was an example of serving others and serving God—and that, as far as Martine and Philippa were concerned, transcended pleasure. What if we, as a Christian body, worked to do things that the world saw as just worldly pleasure but instead did it with the intention of serving? What if teachers taught students, coaches prepared athletes, writers composed for readers, and even filmmakers created for audiences not just simply to make a profit, but to provide others with a way of seeing God?
This, to me, makes anything “pleasurable” glorifying to God as well. And as Christians, we need to find pleasure in serving Him and others. The psalmist writes, “I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches… I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word.” (Psalm 119:14, 16) I pray that you and I would take delight in the Lord’s commands and in His love, and that we might be able to express our delight and joy to the rest of the world in everything that we do!