First things first: Let me admit, right up front, that I thought the movie “Titanic” by James Cameron was both ridiculous and, in terms of the history of the event, genuinely tragic. Yes, I wrote that (to some) infamous column for Scripps Howard that, among other things, included this:
For millions, the Titanic is now a triumphant story of how one upper-crust girl found salvation — body and soul — through sweaty sex, modern art, self-esteem lingo and social rebellion. “Titanic” is a passion play celebrating the moral values of the 1960s as sacraments. Rose sums it up by saying that she could abandon her old life and family because her forbidden lover “saved me in every way that a person can be saved.” …
Father Patrick Henry Reardon, a philosophy professor and Orthodox priest, … calls the movie “satanic.” The people who built the Titanic were so proud of their command of technology that they boasted that God couldn’t sink their ship. Today, the creators of the movie “Titanic” substitute romantic love as the highest power. Jack becomes Rose’s savior and he does more than save her life.
“Had that been all that happened, I would not have complained,” said Reardon. “But they made that Christ symbol into a very attractive anti-Christ. The line that set me off I believe also to have been the defining line of the film: the assertion that the sort of saving that Jack did was, ultimately, the only kind of saving possible. If that was the thesis statement of the film, then I start looking for the cloven hoof and sniffing for brimstone.”
So, it was good to get that out of the way.
However, something happened while I was researching that column that changed how I actually viewed the sinking of the Titanic as an event, as opposed to the mega-hit movie. I started reading the sermons that were preached on the Sunday after the liner sank and, well, they were revelatory, in terms of telling us how many people (on the left and right) interpreted the event at that point in history. Check out this sermon by a young Lutheran named, yes, Pastor Karl Barth.
Thus, I returned to those sermons in my Scripps Howard piece this past weekend, which was built on real quotes from real sermons after the real event. Here’s the thesis statement:
The moral messages captured in these sermons were completely different than the vision offered in 1997 by Hollywood director James Cameron. His “Titanic” blockbuster portrayed the doomed ship as a symbol of the corrupt values of an old-fashioned culture that would soon be conquered by science, social change and the sexual revolution.
For the preachers of 1912, the Titanic was the ultimate symbol, not of the past, but of modernity and the dawn of a century in which ambitious tycoons and scientists would solve most, if not all, of humanity’s thorniest problems. The liner was, in other words, a triumph of Darwinian logic and the march of progress. It’s sinking was a dream-shattering tragedy of biblical proportions.
In other words, Cameron’s movie — for millions of people — turned the event upside down or inside out, or something like that.
Now, it is not for me to require other scribes to agree with my interpretation of that side of this event. No way. My point is that the whole White Star advertisement that the boat was designed to be unsinkable, which was reported by survivors to have been turned into the famous “God Himself could not sink this ship” boast, gave this tragedy a, well, theological dimension that resulted in sermon after sermon after sermon.
Thus, there was a potential for some serious religion-news content in the news stories about the 100-year anniversary.
Help me out here: Did anyone see strong religious content in these stories?
The basic Associated Press story, as featured in USA Today, managed to focus on memorial services of various kinds without managing to report any of the specifics of what was said.
In Belfast, Northern Ireland, where the Titanic was built, a memorial monument was unveiled Sunday at a ceremony attended by local dignitaries, relatives of the dead and explorer Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck of the Titanic on the ocean floor in 1985.
A brass band played as the granite plinth bearing bronze plaques was uncovered beside Belfast City Hall. Officials say it is the first Titanic memorial to list all victims alphabetically, with no distinction between passengers and crew members, or between first-, second- and third-class travelers.
“We remember all those who perished and whose names are herein inscribed — men, women and children who loved and we loved, their loss still poignantly felt by their descendants,” the Rev. Ian Gilpin told the crowd.
After a minute’s silence, a choir sang Nearer My God To Thee — the hymn Titanic’s band is reported to have played as the ship went down.
In another case, the anniversary led to the creation of an actual piece of religious art.
So what content, from this memorial, made it into the AP report? Nothing that I could find. In fact, it’s not even clear whether the lines quoted in that passage from the story are from the concert piece or simply from an interview with one of its creators.
Personally, whenever I write about a piece of music that’s linked to an event or a specific person, I always strive to quote lyrics. Why? Well, isn’t that part of the content of the real event?
On Saturday, thousands attended a memorial concert in Belfast featuring performances by Bryan Ferry and soul singer Joss Stone. At St. Anne’s Cathedral in the city, a performance of composer Philip Hammond’s The Requiem for the Lost Souls of the Titanic was followed by a torch-lit procession to the Titanic memorial garden in the grounds of city hall.
The requiem — performed by male choristers dressed as ship’s crew and female performers in black — also included words by Belfast novelist Glenn Patterson, who imagined the victims reflecting on all they had missed in the last 100 years.
“We passed instead into myth, launched a library full of books, enough film to cross the Atlantic three times over, more conspiracy theories than Kennedy, 97 million web pages, a tourist industry, a requiem or two,” Patterson said. “We will live longer than every one of you.”
So what we have here is a story about memorial rites or various kinds, including a requiem. The event centers on deaths of scores of innocent people who died because technocrats and tycoons felt their great ship was above natural disasters or even acts of God. What made it into this particular AP story? Ghosts, that’s what.