Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Best of the Food Films

14 years ago I wrote the following review for the magazine Christianity and the Arts, which alas is no longer published. Recently I have had two occasions to recall the review--first, the blog before this one when  I wrote about writer Fr. Andrew Greeley; and second, when I wrote the article "The Best Food Films" that will soon appear in 

"Babette’s Extravagant Love"

The narrative of Isak Dinesen’s short story “Babette’s Feast” is as spare as the four Gospels. And like them, it is a story full of grace. Babette Hersant’s story of suffering and service is so suffused with amazing grace and extravagant, sacrificial love that she can be regarded as a striking example of the image of Christ the Lover.

The story begins, almost forty ears before the feast of the title, with two women. Philippa and Martine are the daughters of their widowed father, known to us simply as Pastor. He is the founder of an ascetic sect of the Lutheran Church, as stark as the rugged, bleak coast of Jutland, where they reside. The pastor is so religious that he named his daughters after the Founder of Lutheranism and after Luther’s chief assistant Philip Melanchthon.

All Photos Courtesy MGM Home Entertainment

Philippa and Martine have become their father’s right hands, accompanying him on visits to parishioners, cooking for the sick and the poor, and leading the singing at the Sunday services. Each of them has a suitor; Martine is wooed by a young cavalry officer, exiled to his aunt’s home in order to mend his dissolute ways. Philippa has attracted the attention of a famous opera singer, who gives her voice lessons and who hopes to woo her away to Paris, where he promises to make her a great star. The sisters turn the suitors away, choosing to stay with their father and his ministry.


Twenty-six years pass. Pastor has died, and Philippa and Martine have become the spiritual center of the little sect. During a fierce storm, the now elderly sisters hear a knock on the door. It is Babette, half dead from exposure. She bears a letter from the opera singer introducing her as needing help. During a political uprising in Paris her husband and son have been killed, and she has fled for her life. She begs to be hired as a servant, and when the sisters reply that they have no money to pay her, Babette offers to work for room and board.

The sisters teach Babette how to make a gruel from fish, daily fare for them and the shut-ins they visit. The gruel is as appetizing as the word sounds, but it sustains life and is offered freely to those who have nothing. As well as cooking, Babette also takes over the marketing, freeing the sisters to spend more time with the parishioners. A strange phenomenon develops—the food begins to taste better to everyone, and the sisters note that there is money left over since Babette’s arrival. Here is an echo of the abundance from Christ’s feeding the five thousand, although there is no claim in this film to the miraculous. In two brief scenes with local merchants we see that Babette is a shrewd buyer.

Fourteen years pass. The parishioners meet regularly for prayer and a meal at the sisters’ home. But their meals are as filled with grumbling and bickering as they are with prayers and hymns. They harbor resentments and grudges against each other for wrongs committed long ago. Interestingly, their bickering always stops when Babette enters the room to serve their simple meal. A disapproving glance or a clearing of her throat is enough to bring shame and silence. Her mere presence is a rebuke to unworthy words or thoughts.

One day a letter from France arrives for Babette, the first communication she has received since her arrival. She has won 10,000 francs in the French lottery. The sisters, at first delighted at Babette’s good fortune, grow sad thinking that she will now be leaving them. However, Babette surprises them when she offers to prepare a French meal for the sect in honor of Pastor’s one-hundredth birthday. The sisters, who usually serve only simple meals, reluctantly agree. Babette then asks to be allowed to go to France for a few days in order to buy the food. In her absence, the sisters resume the cooking. In a sly touch of humor the viewers is shown the dismay on the parishioners’ faces as they taste the unsavory results. They have grown accustomed to Babette’s delicious offerings.

When Babette returns, followed by a procession of crates of wine and champagne, vegetables and small quail, and even a large turtle, the sisters are aghast. Babette’s French meal has clearly gotten out of hand. The sisters confess their error to the parishioners, but their love for Babette requires that they go ahead with the dinner. They all agree that they will endure the meal, not enjoy it as they honor their founder.

The night of the feast arrives. The sisters remove their father’s portrait from the room to save him the disgrace. Babette is working hard in the kitchen. A kettle of turtle soup simmers on the fire; trays of baked good are in the oven; succulent fruit is on the platters. The table is set with a glittering array of crystal glasses and goblets, fine china, and gleaming silver. The cottage is transformed into a setting fit for a king. For the viewers, this is a visual feast.

The guests arrive, reminding one another of their vow not to enjoy the food. Among them is General Lorenz Lowenhielm, Martine’s shy young suitor from long ago. He has risen in rank and prominence at the royal court. He intends to show Martine what she has missed. But nothing turns out as expected.


First, the general is amazed at the splendor of the table, far different from the frugal meals he remembers eating here. As the various wines, the soup, and succeeding courses are brought in by the boy serving as waiter, the general exclaims each time about the quality of the presentation. The other guests, whose limited, rigid lives have left them ignorant of culinary fare, ignore or misunderstand his comments. However, the exquisite beauty and taste of the food begin to work their magic on the diners. We see the softening of spirits, the reluctant then growing delight on their faces as the meal progresses. One by one, the parishioners who had held grudges against one another seek pardon or offer forgiveness.    


 When the main course arrives, a magnificent dish, the general can no longer contain himself. He exclaims that he knows only one person in the world who could have made this, a Parisian female chef over whom men fought duels, a chef so gifted that her meals were called: "a love affair of the romantic and noble category in which one could no longer distinguish between bodily and spiritual appetite.” He rises, clinks his spoon on his glass, and delivers an address on grace, the grace of God which transcends time and distance, and which “proclaims a general amnesty” to all. No longer is he a vain man parading his lofty position before Martine, the woman who had rejected him.


He concludes by quoting Pastor’s favorite Psalm (85:5-10): “Me3rcy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss have kissed one another.” (One of many ironies in the film). As the meal moves to a climax, the company adjourns to the parlor to sing a hymn and continue their words of reconciliation, all the result of the extravagant outpouring of Babette’s love (and skill).

The general leaves after assuring Martine that they have been together in God’s grace all along. The others, afraid to break the magic spell of grace, gather in a circle outside the house. There, under a brilliant canopy of stars, they hold hands to dance in a circle as they quietly sing.

The sisters go to congratulate and thank Babette in the kitchen, from which she has not ventured all evening. There she tells them that she has spent all her lottery winnings on the meal and will be staying on with them. When the sisters in astonishment lament Babette’s impoverishment, she replies, “An artist is never poor.”
Babette, as a culinary artist and as a Catholic (“papist” their father would have said), has intuitively seen the rigid ascetism with which the parishioners have imprisoned their spirits. In their denial of worldly things they have forgotten that God created and blessed the world. Each time the general expressed his pleasure with the food before him, he echoed God’s words of delight in the Genesis account of Creation: “God saw that it was good…And God saw that it was very good.”

Christ affirmed the goodness of creation also when he used bread and wine to convey the deepest bond between himself and his followers. He often spoke of the kingdom as a great banquet. Babette’s life becomes an image of Christ as the banquet host.

There are other similarities. Both Jesus and Babette fled to foreign countries. Jesus often called himself a servant, taking that role when he washed the feet of his disciples. Babette worked for fourteen years as an unpaid servant. Like Christ in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2:6-8) Babette “emptied” herself. She forsook her culinary authority and allowed herself to be taught how to make a simple gruel, which she transformed into a worthy meal.

Most central to this film, however, is the theme of extravagant love and grace. Babette gives everything she has to deliver a group of people from their spare, colorless, and loveless, religion. She invites those who have chosen meagerness to a feast, to taste with joy the abundance of life. She transforms a little gathering of ascetics into an affair of beauty and splendor. As an image of Christ the Lover (and, we ought to add, Artist), she has wooed them out of the darkness and into the light of the Creator God’s presence.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Writer Fr. Andrew Greeley's Death Overshadowed by That of Jean Stapelton

News of the death of the noted Catholic priest/writer Fr. Andrew Greeley was almost lost amid all the tributes given to the wonderful actress who depicted Edith Bunker. TIME Magazine even printed its tribute to him below that of Ms. Stapleton's, and yet I was so absorbed by her story that I totally ignored Fr. Greeley's. Glad that I went back through the magazine before tossing it out.

As a liberal iconoclastic priest he was the bane of traditionalists. Trained in sociology, he wrote 150 books, but most were novels, many of them mysteries with a priest as the solver of the crime. What surprised readers at first was that he did not flinch from mixing explicit talk about theology and God with scenes in which a man and a woman "knew" each other in the Biblical sense. He approved of robust romance, many of his love scenes being at the far edge of an R rating had they been movies.
He also loved and wrote about movies. In one of his works he championed the then controversial Madonna, praising her feisty independence. In the book below, which he co-wrote, he provides many valuable insights into such movies as Jacob's Ladder, Field of Dreams, Pale Rider, Ghost, Flatliners, and one of my favorites, Babette's Feast. 

This book is also one of my favorite film books for a selfish reason--my name is in the Index, which sends you to p. 52 where he quotes the last paragraph of the article I wrote "Babette's Extravagant Love." This was written for the Spring issue of Christianity & the Arts, the theme for that quarter being "Images of Christ." I'm not used to being quoted by someone of such stature, so it was very gratifying.

Fr. Greeley will be missed. Typical of him, the hymn used when his coffin was taken into the church was "Lord of the Dance," Sydney Carter's great song set to a Shaker tune depicting Christ as the Dancer Inviting Us to the Dance of Life--once as controversial to church traditionalists as Fr. Greeley was himself.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

50th Anniversary of Death of Civil Rights Hero

Just as today began it was the 50th anniversary of the murder of Medgar Evers in Jackson Missisippi. Head of that state's NAACP Chapter, Evers was returning to his home from a meeting a little after midnight when a sniper shot him in the back right after he got out of his car. His wife Myrlie was inside with their children at the time. When they heard the shot, the children hit the floor as they had been trained to do--a good thing, as the bullet ricocheted through the house
and Myrlie ran out and cradled her husband in her arms. He died less than an hour later in the hospital.

There was a wonderful TV film starring Howard E. Rollins, Jr.--FOR US THE LIVING. It is available on VHS, but not yet on DVD, though some libraries might still have it in this form--or maybe Netflix. It's well worth watching because it depicts his pioneering CR work in the most segregated state of the South, and his ability to grow in his work. A very young Laurence Fishburne plays one of the high school student volunteers who were pushing for a more active role than office work and talking with people. Following NAACP policy to work only in the court system and to avoid confrontation demonstrations, Evers resisted the students until at last they convinced him to support their boycott work. The students were soon challenging Jim Crow at the dime store and library level. It reminded me of a similar situation in Shaw, Ms. where I was a volunteer in 1964's Freedom Summer where the high school students kept asking to be allowed to try to integrate the local library--and at last the adult director agreed.

The above film was released in 1983, but the killer Byron De La Beckwith was able to avoid justice. Not very difficult in the 60s with the cops, judges, and most citizens convinced the killer was a hero who should be honored for ridding the state of a "Commie agitator." It wasn't until 1994, after a new white District Attorney who was free of the racism that so infected his constituents came into office that justice finally caught up with the coward. This story is beautifully told in GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI, starring Alec Baldwin as D.A. Bobby De Laughter, James Woods as the killer, and Whoopie Goldberg as Myrlie, Evers' widow. It is available in various forms, DVD and streaming. A very good social justice film!

We should pause ever so often, on such days as this, and remember that our moving toward Dr. King's "beloved community" (still a long ways off) has cost a lot of lives of brave people.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Some Memories Associated With Edith Bunker

I know Jean Stapleton was 90 when she died, living well beyond the Biblical three score and ten, but I am still reluctant to let her go. And so, as a viewer and one who wrote about her, I want to share a few thoughts about my slight involvement with her most famous character Edith Bunker .

I am old enough to have watched All in the Family when Norman Lear's show was smashing the social and media taboos of the time. What a joy it was to behold! Jean Stapleton's Edith, married to TV's most famous bigot, always tried to defend those whom Archie was attacking--the gay friend of Mike; the new African American neighbors, the Jeffersons. At first she was depicted as, in Archie's words, "a dingbat," but as the show evolved, she became more than just a doormat for her husband to tread on. Her naive but honest remarks often deflated Archie or brought him around to do the right thing. She frequently became the mediator between Archie and whomever he was feuding with--usually Mike.

I became so intrigued by her character that I wrote an article in 1974 for the Christian Century entitled "The Gospel According to Edith Bunker." A friend and I had been intending to write a book about the show itself, but he kept putting it off, so I settled for an article instead.

An editor at Abingdon Press read the article and called me up, suggesting that indeed a book project could come out of this. However when I wrote to Norman Lear, his associate replied that another Presbyterian minister had also written them about a book project. Seeing that they had granted him permission to read and use excerpts from the scripts, they did not think another book was warented. My editor was also disappointed with this news, but as we talked over the phone, we came to an agreement to write another book, one that would survey the various offerings of television in general, and so in 1976 Abingdon published Television: A Guide for Christians.

My editor was very creative, suggesting that instead of chapter titles, the contents would be: "Sign On," serving as a first chapter; WSAD Channel 2 "Life Can Be Rotten" The Soap Opera; KZAP Channel 3 Adventure Series; WLIE "Promises, Promises" Television Advertising and Values; KKID 5 "Suffer the Little Children" Children's Programming & the Kingdom; WYUK 6 "A Laughing Matter" Situation Comedies and the Gospel; KNEW Channel 7 "And That's the Way It Is" Man's News & God's News--Fact & Faith; Sign Off.

The book was intended not so much to be about TV as it was to involve the readers in group engagement with the various types of programming. I wrote two skits as examples of what readers might create, "The Loves of David," a soap opera based on King David's infamous affair with Bathsheba, and an episode from a sitcom based on Jesus' Parable of the Two Men Praying in the Temple. It was the latter with which I partially satisfied my desire to write about All in the Family.
We couldn't actually use the series' title, so our series was called "A Fall in the Family," and the skit involved Arnie and Enid Clunker discussing with Glory and Mack how upset Arnie was in church that morning when a dirty hippy came to the worship service. I was surprised that the staff artist left no room for doubt as to who were the source of my Clunker family.

I've used that skit in a lot of churches and numerous retreats myself, and have heard from a few readers who reported that they had fun with it too. (Insert shameless commercial: both skits are part of a "Gospel and Comedy Retreat Kit" available from my Visual Parables.)

Meanwhile, the book that I originally wanted to write came out--God, Man and Archie Bunker by Spencer Marsh. And a very good one it was, too. Soon it was accompanied by a tape with sound bites from the show and a study guide for group use. I usedthe book and tape with both adults and youth, the latter especially in confirmation classes.

I did receive what amounted to a consolation prize for not getting to write the All in the Family book. In observation of the 100th program of the series Norman Lear produced a one-hour special hosted by Henry Fonda. The program was divided into sections, each one focusing on one of the four main characters. To introduce Edith Bunker, Mr. Fonda said, "As Edward McNulty wrote in the Christian Century..." Now on the night of the broadcast I missed this because I was conducting a wedding rehearsal. When I arrived home my wife Sandra met me at the door with a wine glass full of our favorite beverage, Welches' Sparkling Grape Juice. As she congratulated me she reported that Henry Fonda had quoted my article, but when I asked what part, she replied, "I don't know." She had been eating something and excitedly threw it up in the air when she heard my name, rushing to the stairs to call to our children to come down and hear about their father. By the time she returned to the TV, the introduction was over. Sigh.

And then the next day we learned that in another nearby city the show had been pre-empted by a football game so that it would be broadcast that night. (Talk about grace!) You can well imagine that we were all gathered around the set that night. The paragraph that my favorite actor read is the next to the last one. After commenting on her lack of education and such, I had written: "Edith might think that Plato is a Walt Disney dog, that Aristotle is a Greek shipping magnate, and that Marx is a great comedian, but she possesses something greater than factual knowledge: a knowledge of the heart, an insight into the soul."

And so, these are some of the memories I associate with the wonderful actress Jean Stapleton. Carroll O'Connor deserves all the praise he has received for playing America's "most lovable bigot," but we must never forget Jean Stapleton's incredible role in making the series such a groundbreaking hit. I have heard people mention that the show became such an icon of American culture that the Smithsonian in Washington asked to display Archie's chair from which he spewed out his opinions and slurs. That is but half of the truth--the display is not just Archie's chair, but Edith's as well. May both stars be long remembered!

Saturday, June 1, 2013


Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 40 min.

Cyber instructs his son about the dangerous trek he must make.
© 2013 Columbia Pictures

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
   I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
   your rod and your staff—
   they comfort me. 
Psalm 23: 4

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do 
with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 
        1 John 4.18

Director M. Night Shyamalan, rather than directing from a script written solely by himself, takes on a story originally suggested by Will Smith, with co-scriptwriter Gary Wita (who also wrote The Book of Eli) joining him. According to the press notes, Smith had envisioned this father-son story as a survival tale resulting from a camping trip gone awry in today’s wilderness. Instead, it has been enlarged to a tale set a millennium off in the future with a space ship replacing a SUV. So, seven years after The Pursuit of Happyness in which the father-son pair survived on the streets and subway bathrooms of San Francisco, we have them fighting for their lives on a planet where both animal and plant life are bent on destroying anything human.

The title refers to the fact that there has been a mass migration from Earth due to pollution caused by war and industrial and civic pollution. Young cadet Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) has just failed to advance to Ranger status because of his headstrong rebellion against his superiors while in the field. He is very despondent because he so wants to win the respect of his disciplinarian father, the famous United Rangers General Cypher Raige (Will Smith). The latter is gone so much that a distance has opened up between the two. The father has just returned, and the son, after angrily telling him the bad news during supper, stalks off to his room. Fortunately his wise mother Faia Raige (Sophie Okonedo) is there to explain their son’s behavior and advises Cyber to pay especial attention to the boy. He accepts this, saying that he can and will take Kitai with him on his last trip. Even better for her, he reveals that after this next mission he plans to retire to spend more time with the family

As the father and son are getting ready to board their ship, three Rangers, recovering from their battle wounds, respectfully approach the General, thanking and saluting him for saving their lives. This seemingly small scene will take on more importance at the end of the film. Before they can reach their destination, the spaceship is terribly damaged while passing through an asteroid belt, forcing them to seek a landing spot for emergency repairs. Unfortunately the closest planet is under a quarantine forbidding anyone from landing on it. However, they have no choice, and the landing is so rough that the ship breaks apart, the tail section fallen almost 200 kilometers behind. Everyone is killed but the father and son.

It is in that far off tail section that an emergency beacon and oxygen-containing disks are contained. Cyber’s legs are too badly injured for him to make the trek it is up to Kitai to make the trip. Succeed or die. Oh yes, that tail section also included the container in which a deadly creature called an ursa was being transported. Ursas are vicious creatures that track humans through their fear.  Earlier we are told that to avoid being killed by one a person must become a “ghost” by eliminating all fear, ghost in the sense that he is invisible to the predator as long as fear is held in check.

© 2013 Columbia Pictures

Through a series of short flashbacks we learn that when he was a young child Kitai had watched helplessly as an ursa killed his older sister Senshi (Zoe Kravitz), so the teenager must wrestle with his inner guilt and fear that he had in the past been a coward, as well as the present outer dangers of the hostile planet. Yes, the planet turns out to be the earth, the creatures of which have mutated into predators seemingly designed to kill their former tormentors. Cypher tells his son, “Fear is not real. It is a product of thoughts you create. Do not misunderstand me. Danger is very real. But fear is a choice.”

Just how difficult the choice of not to fear we soon see when oxygen supply is cut short when some of the disks are smashed. With the earth’s air too polluted, Kitai has enough oxygen to return his father, but not enough to reach the tail unless he takes a perilous shortcut that probably will result in his death. Against his father’s orders, Kitai refuse to return, and…. The film offers plenty of thrills for adventure lovers, climaxing, of course, in the encounter with the hungry ursa.

Visually the film is also exciting, from Kitai’s cool body-clinging survival suit that changes color when danger is near and contains a two-way camera in the wrist so that Cyber can monitor his movements to the computer-enhanced terrain so beautifully verdant. The screening audience became so thoroughly caught up in the story that they applauded at several key moments, especially in the final scene when we see the strict father at last showing his approval in a very moving way. The film will not become a classic, with many of the critics displaying their disapproval. However, I found it very enjoyable, with the comment about fear being intriguing.

Like most sci-fi stories, this one seems to presume that religions have been supplanted by science and reason, so the equivalent of the assurance of the line from the 23rd Psalm is Cyber’s assuring Kitai that he will be with him every step of the way by means of their communication system. And his observation about fear being fueled by thinking of possible bad future consequences means that one must take no thought of the future but concentrate solely on the present moment reminds one of “Carpe diem” (“Seize the day”) in the film Dead Poets Society—or better, of the one who said in regard to our worried over food and clothing, “Do not be anxious about tomorrow…”

The review in Visual Parables will contain six questions prior to the one below. This one might lead to some discussion about science fiction and its treatment--or lack of--of religion. I also want to call your attention to a classic sci-fi novel that I hope some day will be made into a film:

7. What do you think of the way in which so many sci-fi authors write off the Christianity and the church (or any other religion for that matter)? How do they under-estimate the ability of organized faith to adapt to new circumstances? For those seeking a sci-fi novel that takes a very different tact with faith see Walter Miller’s 1960 classic The Canticles of Leibowitz. Wikipedia has a good article on it at”
For an amusing trailer of a fictional movie adaptation of Miller’s novel, see