‘Titanic’ theology

PAUL DARROW REUTERS Children from a nearby community organization bow their heads while standing next to grave markers of Titanic … Continued



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.

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  • KingsleyD

    Timeless tragedy. I recorded an updated version of “Titanic Man Blues” (original by Ma Rainy in 1925). Thought I’d share: YouTube “Titanic Man Blues – Kingsley Division” Enjoy!

  • TopTurtle

    The sinking of the Titanic did not represent the end of the advancement of technology. Rather, we learned a lot about what went wrong and why.

    Interestingly, the whole “unsinkable” storyline is a product of romantic hindsight. People didn’t really think the Titanic was unsinkable.

  • Secular1

    JMR, I was wondering whatever happened to you. It seemed like you had fallen of the earth – so pre-newtonian of me. No body falls of the earth, although earth keeps falling. I see you have relocated to my neck of the woods – H Town. Welcome to Texas. Enough of pleasantries.

    Although I like reading your articles, this is for sure total drivel. Couldn’t you have found something else to write about. You could have written about them Romneys and their outrage about Ms. Rosen’s politically incorrect remarks. The one about which the entire GOP outrgae machine went into over drive. Or perhaps the piety of Anne choosing the mormon sky daaddy over her own daddy, when it came to her wedding ceremony. Or about that tireless culture warrior Rick Santorum, who could not keep his lunch down when he read about JFK’s speech in, now your back yard, H town some 52 years ago. Or about the fat bloviator, yes that same guy aka “I have to have my woody 24/7 with help of teh V pill” Rush Limabugh’s advise to JD students on their social behaviors. For which your man Mitt responded that he would have used more decorous words such as Harlot, Tamar, Jezebel or Trollope instead. You had all those topics and you picked on sinking of Titanic. Come on man, you can do way beter than that.

    You see Titanic as a limitation on technology? JMR, do you not see how you are reaching millions with your drivel and the instant critique you are getting back as advancement of technology? You still wrote this drivel. Then you claim, “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.” And how do you know that nonsense is true? because it says in that book written by a bunch of ignoramuses? Come on

  • kingcranky

    I’m confused.

    “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.”

    So, the souls of those who died on the Titanic are at the bottom of the ocean, they’ve not yet been judged?

    There’s also the…..is “irony” even the right word, of using technology to exclaim that technology can’t save us.

    One last point…..

    “an HG Wells delusion that all problems could be solved by material means.”

    Please do point out where Wells EVER made such an assertion.

    Reynolds can’t.

    Not “won’t”, but “can’t”.

    Wasn’t aware that spewing easily-demolished lies is considered a “Christian” virtue.

  • JinaBacarr

    Wonderful tribute! And very apropos on this day of remembrance. I’ve been a Titanic enthusiast for a long time and posted a tribute to the passengers and crew, adding stories about the well-known as well as those lesser known, from first class to second to steerage to crew.

    Names like Cordelia Lobb, traveling with her husband—her body was identified by the initials on her wedding ring before she was buried at sea; Kate Connolly, 35, who boarded in Queenstown—ironically, another Kate Connolly, 23, also boarded in Queenstown but survived in lifeboat no. 13; and Margaret Rice with her five sons. Mrs. Rice, a widow from Ireland, had a photo of her and her boys taken before she left which has only recently resurfaced.

    Steward Harry Bristow and L. Mueller from Germany who was an interpreter for steerage German passengers. Second class men who didn’t survive include Jakob Birnbaum, a jeweler carrying diamonds from Antwerp; John and Sarah Chapman, a honeymoon couple from Cornwall, England; Harvey Collyer, who had his life savings on him when he died: $5,000 (his wife and daughter survived), and Reverend Robert James Bateman, father of seven children

    My Titanic Tribute

  • hrobert02

    So science and technology are not the answer, the big G is.

    Seems like there has been a history of humans making amazing strides in medicine where anitbiotics, for example, prevent so many deaths. Mr. G didn’t want us to eat of the tree of knowledge but we accrued some knowledge none the less.

    I’ll stick with science & technology as our best ways of increasing our chances of living longer lives. Is Reynolds ready to be a Christian ‘Scientist’ (oxymoron?) and eschew medicine?

  • hrobert02

    ScottinVA says technology has brought a plethora of its own problems.

    I’ll take its problems versus the ones God keeps giving us (tsunamis, flu epidemics, genetic diseases, etc., etc.).

  • catatonicjones

    10 out of 10 people die, and stay dead.

  • DavidJ9

    How do you figure that? How are humans responsible for tsunami or earthquakes? How are humans responsible for epidemics?

  • ezrasalias-socialize

    Does that mean the Challenger and Columbia disasters where just hubris as well? What about Darwin’s theory of evolution, or Einstein’s theory of relativety. How about Madam Curie dying of cancer because of her discovery of two radioactive isotopes. What about the invention of the computer chip? Reynold’s forgets that the road of progress in technology comes with big thinkers, as it was with the designers of the Titanic. Nevertheless, engineers now build better ships, and ordinary people still sacrifice their lives for others, whether they believe or not.

    Perhaps Reynolds needs to tighten his cilice, as his hubris about his god is getting a little absurd, and his anihilist approach to life is nothing but depressing.

  • larryclyons

    Now let me get this straight, because of disasters like the titanic we ought to turn from technology and worship a mythical being from a collection of bedtime stories from a group of tribal 8th century BCE goat and sheep herders? That is almost as good as using the bible for a biology textbook. Oh wait many of you Christians want to do that anyhow.

  • larryclyons

    All them gays, and demmycrats according to many in the Christian extremes.

  • Rongoklunk

    We live in the age of science and mind-boggling technology, and like everything else it evolves, it is all about trial and error, and learning from mistakes, and continually attempting to get it right.
    Unlike religion, which is forever stuck at the outrageously absurd skygod hypothesis, science learned from failures like the Titanic, and built better ships.
    They’ve also built better airplanes, better buildings, better everything from cars to computers and tv’s and ipods. We live in an amazing world, made better by science. Two hundred years ago life was still the dark ages. There were no cars, no planes, no radio, no televisions,But science began,and religion took a back seat while the world changed for the better.

    Religion is a lie. There are no gods, and never were any. It’s time we grew up and put away childish ideas.