Which Ethics? For Which Church? Revisiting Karen Blixen’s “Babette’s Feast”

The elderly and pious Protestant sisters Martine and Philippa lived in a small village on the remote western coast of Jutland in19th-century Denmark. Their father was a pastor who founded there a Lutheran congregation he wanted to be as rigorous, disciplined and essential as the first Reformation communities. For this reason he named his daughters in honor of the Reformers Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon. With their father now dead and the austere congregation drawing no new converts, the aging sisters preside over a dwindling congregation of white-haired believers. The story then flashes back 49 years, showing the sisters in their youth. The beautiful girls had many suitors, but their father rejected them all, and indeed derided marriage. They were to live only for God and the Gospel. Each daughter was courted by an impassioned suitor visiting Jutland; Martine by a charming young Swedish cavalry officer, Lorens Löwenhielm, and Philippa by a star baritone, Achille Papin, from the Paris opera. But both sisters decided to stay with their father and spurn any life away from Jutland and their spiritual mission.

Thirty five years later, Babette Hersant appears at their door. She carries only a letter from Papin, explaining that she is a refugee from counter-revolutionary bloodshed in Paris, and recommending her as a housekeeper. The sisters cannot afford to take Babette in, but she offers to work for free. Babette serves as their cook for the next 14 years, producing an improved version of the ascetic meals typical of the abstemious nature of the congregation, and slowly gaining their respect. Her only link to her former life is a lottery ticket that a friend in Paris renews for her every year. One day, she wins the lottery of 10,000 francs. Instead of using the money to return to Paris and her lost lifestyle, she decides to spend it preparing a delicious dinner for the sisters and their small congregation on the occasion of the founding pastor's hundredth birthday. More than just a feast, the meal is an outpouring of Babette's appreciation, an act of self-sacrifice. Babette tells no one that she is spending her entire winnings on the meal. The sisters accept both Babette's meal and her offer to pay for the creation of a "real French dinner”. Babette arranges for her nephew, a merchant, to go to Paris and gather supplies for the feast. The ingredients are plentiful, sumptuous and exotic, and their arrival causes much discussion among the villagers. As the various never-before-seen ingredients arrive, and preparations start, the sisters begin to worry that the meal will become a sin of sensual luxury, if not some form of devilry. In a hasty conference, the sisters and the congregation agree to eat the meal, but to forgo speaking of any pleasure in it, and to make no mention of the food during the dinner. Martine's former suitor, Lorens, now a famous general married to a member of the Queen’s court, comes as the guest of his aunt, a rich lady of the village and a member of that local congregation. He is unaware of the other guests' austere plans and, as a man of the world and former attaché in Paris, he is the only person at the table qualified to comment on the meal. He offers to the guests abundant information about the extraordinary food and drink, comparing it to a meal he enjoyed years earlier at the famous Café Anglais in Paris. Although the other participants refuse to comment on the earthly pleasures of their meal, Babette's gifts break down their distrust and superstitions, elevating them physically and spiritually. Old wrongs are forgotten, ancient loves are rekindled, and a mystical redemption of the human spirit settles over the table.

The sisters assume that Babette will now return to Paris. However, when she tells them that all of her money is gone and that she is not going anywhere, the sisters are aghast. Babette then reveals that she was formerly the head chef of the Café Anglais, and tells them that dinner for 12 there has a price of 10,000 francs. Martine tearfully says, "Now you will be poor the rest of your life", to which Babette replies, "An artist is never poor." Philippa then says: "But this is not the end, Babette. In Paradise you will be the great artist God meant you to be" and then embraces her with tears in her eyes saying: "Oh, how you will enchant the angels!", which is precisely how the story ends.

We may be surprised and even laugh at the blindness and incapacity of this community to discern the one-sidedness of its ascetic orientation. But this story reminds us that every community tends in reality to do so by developing in time a close and self-referential attitude. That is known. What is less known is that religious anomalies and short-circuits often emerge within or in relation to our very same virtues. And it’s an external element to the group (Babette), often stigmatized and vilified, that finally brings new insights and new resources.

Starting from this narrative about this ascetic congregation, let’s consider three questions that can help us to reformulate the Ethics we Adventists need today.

1. What is a group?

Not all Christian congregations look the same. Depending on their theological and religious background they can be ascetic, society-friendly, mission-oriented, apocalyptic, philanthropic, ecumenical, liberal or conservative. Their main religious orientation conditions the type of Ethics they articulate. But before this religious dimension, there also exists a sociological dimension that can be even more determinant because it precedes the others and conditions them structurally. In fact social theory establishes an important passage which has occurred in our time. This is what Ferdinand Tönnies called the transition from “Gemeinschaft” to “Gesellschaft”. These are two types of social groupings. On one hand, “Gemeinschaft”, often translated as “Community”, refers to groups based on feelings of togetherness and mutual bonds. These are felt to be a goal to be sustained, their members being mediators for reaching this goal. Such groups are natural, homogeneous and past-oriented. They privilege direct, face to face relations through dialogue, and they tend to be of small dimensions. On the other hand, “Gesellschaft”, often translated as “Society”, refers to groups that are sustained by an instrumental understanding of individual aims and goals. These groups are artificial, heterogeneous and future-oriented. They privilege indirect and contractual relations through written documents and tend to be of big dimensions. “Gemeinschaft” may be exemplified historically by a family, or a neighborhood in pre-modern times, or rural settings today. “Gesellschaft” might be exemplified by a joint-stock company or a state in our current times. Gesellschaft relationships arise in urban and capitalist settings, characterized by individualism and impersonal connections between people.

This social transition has been revolutionary because, fundamentally, it has given our lives a lot of efficiency and dynamism. And this passage has gradually involved all the important dimensions of our existence. At the beginning it involved the workplace and its productive activities, then successively health systems, educational systems, and finally and paradoxically also religious congregations and families. But this sociological transition, quiet and unnoticed, ended up also deeply transforming Ethics. Ethics today can be of various types: managerial, medical, educational, religious or secular. But, at bottom, all share the same sociological pattern: a strong vocation for planning, order and efficiency. Ethics today tends structurally to have a consistent instrumental and managerial component, independent of its ideological configuration (McIntyre).

2. What kind of group is Adventism?

In spite of all resistance and criticism towards current secular societies, and beyond the radical theological differences existing between these and Adventism, we Adventists have experienced the same radical social transformation. In fact, Adventists today are mostly a Gesellschaft-type group. We have become socially heterogeneous, artificially bounded, goal-oriented, procedural and impersonal in our human and administrative transactions – led by abstract and standard rules. And all this independent of our the theological orientations. That’s visible in the organization, life and human interactions within our big institutions (Loma Linda university, Andrews university, etc.) as much as in the little ones (Villa Aurora, Collonges or Friedensau). And this is an ambivalent fact. On one side it has given us efficiency and order but, on the other side, it has made our relations more procedural and mechanistic. Our Ethics bears the same sociological traits.

3. Which Adventist Ethics today?

The massive triumph of the “Gesellschaft-type group”, within our current societies, as much as in Adventism, has produced in time a new contra-phenomenon that Michel Maffesoli calls “The Time of the Tribes”. It is the desperate search for “community” and “belonging”; for traditional, religious and national values considered uncritically as a safeguard against the moral dissolution of our societies. This genuine search and aspiration nevertheless doesn’t succeed in solving the problem of the diffuse atomization and dis-embedding still among us, but rather tends to polarize our societies even more, creating a new ethical dilemma. According to Giacomo Marramao this new polarization is formed, on one side, of a diffuse and transversal “disenchanted Ethics of individual consumerism” and, on the other side, of a “seductress and re-enchanted religious Ethics of communitarian belonging”, which intends to correct the first one but in fact ends up reinforcing the polarization. And, we could add, applying Marramao’s insight, that only a wise and balanced Adventism, provided with some cultural sensitivity, will be able to escape this polarization and avoid giving reactionary forces in society, as well as within the church, attention and credibility.

Karen Blixen’s novel reminds us of some elementary social rules that each group should always keep in mind. First, it is easy to get stuck in our own virtues and, at a certain point, stop living. Second, a search of only internal solutions in a trapped group is the worst strategy we can conceive of because these often don’t solve the problem but rather end up radicalizing it.

Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

If you respond to this article, please:

Make sure your comments are germane to the topic; be concise in your reply; demonstrate respect for people and ideas whether you agree or disagree with them; and limit yourself to one comment per article, unless the author of the article directly engages you in further conversation. Comments that meet these criteria are welcome on the Spectrum Website. Comments that fail to meet these criteria will be removed.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7909
1 Like

This was an interesting little story , and it brings home to us as Adventist what has been happening in our circles. Our own growth has caused our problem. The division that was once seen only between us and other groups , is now seen within us and other sub groups of Adventist .Because of the influence of the larger society, Adventism has changed . Once held together by a strong theological themes, The End of the World , Jesus is Coming Again, The Mark of the Beast ,etc, etc ,we are now galvanized around the latest social theme, Women’s Ordination, Homosexuality, and Congregationalism .While the Church has a social role to play, that is not it’s main role . We are to preach the gospel to the world . I do accept that other churches, The Salvation Army being one , does a wonderful job ,in feeding and housing the poor . While we do assist them and help in other ways , that is not our focus. In Luke 8 :26-39 , we are told of a story where Jesus has healed a man possessed by demons. In the end, Jesus is told to leave the region , and the man begs Jesus ,can he come with Him . Jesus , says no and sends him home .He had just been saved, but needed after care that was to be provided by his friends and family. Let the Church roll on. We are becoming too bugged down with social issues that we are losing our focus of the Great Gospel Commission, “Go Ye into All the World .”

1 Like

There is a story about St Francis.
It is said that he said this –
“Preach the Gospel.
Say, Use words when necessary.”

Seems like that would be a Wonderful MOTTO for SDAs.


Two facts, two quotes:
(Fact 1): Adventist scholars, in 1975, found no theological obstacles to ordaining women to gospel ministry.” (Adventist Review, March 7, 1985)
(Fact 2): Ordination of women has been discussed in the Adventist Church since at least 1881. Mrs. White received the salary of an ordained pastor beginning in 1881. By 1884, Mrs. White was listed as an ordained minister in the GC Yearbook. She held ministerial credentials from 1871 forward, and received an ordination certificate in 1883 and other years, including 1887, 1899, 1909, and 1913.
(Quote 1): It is the accompaniment of the Holy Spirit of God that prepares workers, both men and women, to become pastors to the flock of God. (Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 6, p. 322)
(Quote 2) “The biblical understanding of ordination is not that the act changes those who are set aside, but only that the church is acknowledging what God has already done by equipping them through the gifts of the Spirit.” (Dr. Jiří Moskala)
(Conclusion): Bible-believing Adventists support the ordination of women to pastoral ministry

(Personal note): There is no splitting necessary at all. Just ask yourself: If God has called a woman, and her ministry is fruitful, why should the church withhold its standard act of recognition? (Biblical Research Institute, 1976)


I think that Rawls Distributive Justice is the best way to understand ethics. It is an expansion of Christ’s admnition to do unto others as they should do unto you. That seemed to be in short since SA and ever since. Adventism has created its n cast system.


Babette’s Feast is a fabulous movie, every bit as insightful about communities in tension as Driving Miss Daisy, another cinematic masterpiece.

In Henrik Ibsen’s drama, Peer Gynt, Peer is confronted by the king of the trolls, who demands to know if he is aware of the difference between humans and trolls. Peer’s flippant answer is brushed aside; the answer, he is told, is that while humans follow the adage “be true to yourself,” trolls urge that you “only stay true to yourself.” And that is the problem with Gesellschaft groups: instead of staying true to their ideals they stay true to themselves, to their own tribe. This is especially so with groups that have a Messianic identity, such as classic Adventism. I remember from my time in the church in the 1970s the degree to which the church had become the message. Publications were being put out by the church that essentially advertized the SdA church (“Who are the Seventh-day Adventists?”) as the solution to the world’s problems.

And when the medium becomes the message, truth ends up being redefined in terms of whether it enhances the reputation of the organization or not–much the way Trump does. Messianic movements end up being much more concerned about maintaining coherence and control than living up to one’s ideals. Peer Gynt nearly ended up marrying the troll king’s daughter since his natural inclination was to make the most of who he was. In the end, he meets the button molder. You could have been a shiny button on the world’s vest, he is told, but the fastener snapped and in the mold you go."

Ultimately, that is what happens to people and organizations that forget their ideals and instead choose to remain true to themselves.

While Karen Blixen’s book seems to have focused on Babette the artist (From the heart of every artist, she writes, rises a prayer, God help me do my best), the film focuses on Babette as the redeemer of a closed community. Go rent the movie.


Babette’s Feast is a must watch. I’ve thought of it as Incarnational, so very much like @aage_rendalen’s description of Babette as “redeemer” of a community.


If only Adventism could have stayed in the 1940’s and 50’s where there was a surplus of children going to SDA schools, living the same type of lifestyle, marrying among the small SDA communities- then all would still be well. However, multiculturalism happened bringing in different foods, languages, differing social norms, etc. It is impossible to have “progress” and not have a few things pop up that one does not wish for. Adventism will never be what it was before and that is how it should be. There will always be differences among human beings in any organization and Adventism is no different.


Sounds like the main reason for church existence is to offend nobody at all costs…but thats not how Jesus or scripture demonstrates it…

1 Like