Children from a nearby community organization bow their heads while standing next to grave markers of Titanic victims during a small service at the Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia April 15, 2012.
“Titanic wasn’t just a movie,” the girl said, “it was real.”
The girl was shocked to discover her favorite movie had a basis in history and my daughter was stunned she was just learning it last week. My children know there was nothing romantic about the sinking of the great liner, Titanic. Death came cold to the passengers.
History is a story told by God and it has taken a century for us to rewrite the meaning of the sinking of RMS Titanic. We allowed our jesters to soften the story by imposing our values on the people of that time. James Cameron mocks the vices, obscures the pieties, and simplifies the virtues of the men and women on Titanic.
As a result, we cannot learn, because we are given only a reflection of self dressed up in Edwardian clothes. But the largest object moved by man up to that point in time was a triumph of the a world view: man triumphant over nature.
The sinking of Titanic was one of many trumpet warnings that our faith in human progress was misplaced. Technology could not save us from our own folly and cupidity. The Great War, turned into World War I by huger horrors that followed, retold that story in oceans more blood, but Titanic was first.
Scientific achievement had been wonderful, but it caused some to grow drunk of an HG Wells delusion that all problems could be solved by material means. We forgot that no technology could shield us from death. There were no water-tight compartments that could keep out the dark waters of death. Science could give us power over other men, but it could not give us power over nature.
Nature is. We might manipulate, but we cannot escape it because we are both minds and bodies. We are not just animals, but we are animals and technology can cause us to forget that fact. When the water spilled over the water-tight compartments in Titanic because of human error, men and women remembered that fact.
And then they had to choose what they ought to do. Nature told them what would be. The captain of the liner knew that in a very few hours hundreds would be dead. Humans had refused to ruin the lines of the ship by placing lifeboats in awkward places. Antiquated laws stood on the books. Men had not done as they ought while gaining more power to do what they could.
Christianity teaches that no soul is gone forever. The watery grave will give up her dead on the Last Day and then justice will be done. Every brave act will receive reward, every cowardly moment damnation, when the deeds of each will be revealed. No technology can obscure the inevitable final judgment, but no human error can deflect the mercy of God.
He looms over us, not to sink us, for our pride keeps destroying us without any aid on his part, but to pluck us from the deep. He lifts us up to find safety in his church and transforms even our misery into a lesson for our souls.
Nobody knows for sure what the band played at the last moment, but a people is known by what they wish to believe as much as by what they know. The men and women of that time heard “Nearer My God To Thee,” because that is what they knew happened when the proud ship went down.
They knew that human pride had killed them, but that this cross could be used to raise them to heaven. Victorian England and America had sinned greatly in the abuse of wealth, race and class injustice, but like most Americans on 9/11 when confronted with the hard reality of death, they knew that there was only hope if disaster pointed them to God.
When the ship plunged down for some it was “every man for himself,” but many joined the captain in his order to “be British” and exemplified the best morality of Christian Britain. Those heroes transformed an ugly reality into a glorious ending.
One verse of the old hymn puts it best:
There let the way appear, steps unto heaven;
all that thou sendest me, in mercy given;
angels to beckon me
nearer, my God, to thee;
nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!
Faced with death men and women on chose between virtue and continued vice. Some redeemed lives of depravity by acts of courage. Orthodox passengers from the Middle East, Irish Catholics, New York Jews all had a chance to turn to the God who made them.
Some did. Others died as they lived: scrambling, pushing, shoving, demanding.
And yet one hundred years later, they are all gone. Survivors and victims all the original passengers of Titanic are gone. Nobody cheated death in the end and all had to face God.
It will be the same thing for each one of us. Technology cannot deliver us from death. Even if we could somehow prolong our existence for a billion billion years in the end whether in another Big Bang or sunk into the torpor of the cold death of the cosmos the end would come.
And we too would have to choose. But in reality our choice will come much sooner than we hope as it did for the doomed passengers of RMS Titanic. No story teller can soften the blow of that doom or romanticize it. Death is coming and it drive us to distraction or nearer to God.
Tonight hundreds died and we hope only for mercy on them and on us: common in our doom, united in our hopes.
May the souls of RMS Titanic and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace.
John Mark Reynolds is the incoming provost at Houston Baptist University and the founder of the Torrey Honors Institute.