Gracious art, artistic grace

Usually when I reblog an article, I tease you with the beginning of the piece.  But with this one, I am going to give you the ending.  An excellent commentary on Babette’s Feast.  (If you just want to “cut to the chase,” go here.)

babettesfeast22

Gracious Art, Artistic Grace

Dinesen’s feast of a story is a celebration of food and wine, tragedy and comedy, personalities rich and ridiculous. It is also, I believe, theologically profound. This little story preaches two startling things about the nature of this world and the God of this world—two things that should, perhaps, not startle us, but that we need regularly to be startled by.

Grace does not need our permission to go to work on us. In God’s economy, grace is stubborn, relentless, and inescapable: it hounds; it gets inside without permission; it rises like a wave. Our stories are written to double back and catch us unawares, to drive us again to the moments of our failure and force us to receive what we once refused.

But the reason that art can be gracious is that Grace is anartist. In our little worlds of perfect justice, we assume that our failures will frustrate God’s purposes and disqualify us from joy. We therefore live as if guilt and regret are righteous, fear holy, despair a wise conclusion to draw from the mess we have made. But God has far too much at stake in us for that to be true. Grace is like Achille Papin, refusing to abandon Philippa to a life of artistic barrenness because hisownlife, his own art, would be meaningless if he did not complete his work in her. Grace is Babette, the culinary genius of her age, spending all her money and skill on people who cannot taste, because it is her one opportunity to do her utmost. The reason God loves us faithfully is not because we have some inherent worth or usefulness that we increase by our cooperation, undermine by our failure. It is because God is an Artist, and making something from nothing—doing his utmost—is his great desire, the one long cry of his heart.

But he is not content with that—and neither, miracle of miracles, are we. An artist has not done his utmost until he has, like Lorens Loewenhielm, given taste to the tasteless, until he has, like Achille Papin, created in duet—and God is such an artist. He will not be content until he has made us into artists, too. At our best, at our truest, we desire to justify his gift, to respond with the gratitude that is itself an artistic act.

For now, his and our project is often shockingly anti-climactic: anecdotal failures and even more anecdotal redemptions, a meal no one can taste, dying people playing in the snow. But one day—how it will enchant the angels. •


Leta Sundetis a Ph.D. student in literature at the University of Dallas and attends a Reformed Episcopal church. Her current literary interests include Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and children’s books.

“The Artistry of Grace” first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2015 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you’ll find more of the same in every issue.

You can read the beginning here.

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