Titanic +100: Any ghosts in this story?

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.

Alas, here’s a sample:

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.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    a triumph of Darwinian logic

    I don’t think the Titanic actually qualifies as a new species…

    Given how y’all insist that words like “Fundamentalist” be used correctly, I’m curious if you can explain the relationship between biological evolution and early 20th century shipbuilding.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Glad to.

    The sermons were full of references to survival of the fittest and Social Darwinism.

    Here’s what happened: When the column was cut, one key quote came out. Looking back, I wish I had said “a triumph for the logical of Social Darwinism….”

    But you have to remember how crucial the Darwin debates were at that time, for left and right. One of the most pointed and amazing Darwinian comments — the one I wanted to use but did not have room — was from a very liberal Episcopal voice.

    Those sermons really are interesting.

  • Julia

    Strange. I read recently that it was a myth that the ship was advertised as “unsinkable”. It’s exact twin had been sailing for some time without a problem and there was not as much fanfair about the Titanic’s maiden voyage as is now presented. It was the almost exact duplicate of the ship already in service, so it was not a big deal. The business about it having been bally-hoo’d and advertised as “unsinkable” started after it sunk.

    I’ll post a link if I can locate the article. It was from a very reliable source – like the BBC or Nat Geo.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    The “designed to be” language is from a White Star brochure in an archives dedicated to Titanic history. Search for that language and you’ll find it.

  • Julia

    Here’s the BBC story about “unsinkable”.

    In Cameron’s Titanic, the heroine’s mother looks up at the ship from the dock in Southampton and remarks: “So, this is the ship they say is unsinkable.”

    But this is perhaps the biggest myth surrounding the Titanic, says Richard Howells, from Kings College London.

    “It is not true that everyone thought this. It’s a retrospective myth, and it makes a better story. If a man in his pride builds an unsinkable ship like Prometheus stealing the fire from the gods… it makes perfect mythical sense that God would be so angry at such an affront that he would sink the ship on its maiden outing.”

    Contrary to the popular interpretation the White Star Line never made any substantive claims that the Titanic was unsinkable – and nobody really talked about the ship’s unsinkability until after the event, argues Howells.


  • http://AandBCounseling.com Don Ibbitson

    I don’t see any strong religious aspect to the anniversary stories out there. The human tragedy of the day has been well noted and documented appropriately I believe. I suspect the sinking struck a hard blow to the “mankind is king” crowd who thought they had built an unsinkable vessel.

    Christians understand that man has never been master of his own destiny. Is it a stretch to say that we can see other man-made “Titanics” (maybe the world financial system?) heading towards calamity?

  • Roberto

    Is it a stretch to say that we can see other man-made “Titanics” (maybe the world financial system?) heading towards calamity?

    That’s exactly the analogy James Cameron made in his National Geographic Channel special on the Titanic. He saw Titanic as a metaphor for systems of power that, as a result of hubris, refuse to see their vulnerability until it’s too late to avoid disaster. He specifically mentioned the financial meltdown.

  • carl

    OK, so let’s admit that the forensic examination of the debris field was cool,and led to an uber cool simulation. That NatGeo special could have been titled “JAMES CAMERON’S EGO presents JAMES CAMERON (and a supporting cast of little people who actually know stuff about ships and the Titanic).” It was embarrassing to watch him prattle on about Global Warming at the end of that special. But the Titanic is simply a great stage from which to pontificate. It has become a morality play as seen through the lenses of various worldviews. Each competes to define the narrative of this timeless drama that will never pass away.


  • Martha

    There is a huge religion ghost in the history of the “Titanic”, but it’s more to do with the unfortunate history of Ireland, and the sectarianism of the Belfast shipyards – something that has been largely, by silent agreement, swept under the carpet for all the commemorations and celebrations and memorials both North and South (don’t want to jeopardise those tourist dollars, pounds and euro in these tough times!)

    You must remember that, in 1912 when the ship was built, the ferment of the Home Rule Bill was stirring; Unionist and Protestant Ulster wished to show its loyalty to Britain and the Empire, and to protest against modern, industrialised North of Ireland being lumped in with the poor, backwards, agricultural Roman Catholic and Nationalist South and being abandoned by “the mainland” – and a huge project like the “Titanic” was just the showpiece to do it.

    When I was a schoolchild in the 70s, there were plenty of folktales retailed as history about “Every rivet driven into the hull was called ‘that’s another nail in the Pope’s coffin’” and allegations that inside the hull they had chalked or painted “To Hell with the Pope” – more urban legends of this sort can be found here.

    But the attitude then was one described in Seamus Heaney’s poem from the 60s, Docker, and the kinds of “accidents” that would befall Catholic workers in the Harland and Wolff shipyard:

    “That fist would drop a hammer on a Catholic –
    Oh yes, that kind of thing could start again;”

    But, what with the Peace Process and the “Don’t mention the war” attitude, this kind of religion ghost is kept firmly in its tomb for the forthcoming commemorations.

  • Jay

    I agree with Don Ibbitson. There isn’t much religion involved except the many beautiful, respectful and solemn commemorations held on both sides of the Atlantic. The Canadians did a great tribute to the victims and the survivors, if you caught any of the CBC coverage. The Titanic represents a lost innocence prior to the great war – a prelude to an era of modern machinery that can take so many lives so rapidly and the beginning of the many ghosts of that era.

  • Julia


    After watching the video of the practice of the Requiem for Lost Souls, it struck me that these are Belfast folks singing the words of the old Catholic Requiem Mass in Latin. Considering the fact that Catholic workers were not allowed to help build the Titanic, (from that official website) I wonder what these singers thought about singing a Catholic Requiem. The Belfast composer mentioned his father’s talking about being 10 when the ship went down and the composer’s familiarity with the shipyards growing up. They had to be aware that Catholics were kept from working in the yards. Ironically, the steerage passengers were mainly poor Catholics trying to get to the US.

    There’s a ghost if I ever saw one. Is this Requiem part of a healing gesture to the bad old days? I noticed that a singing group from Dublin was going to be part of the ensemble. And a St Cecilia singing group. Good for the composer.

  • Maureen

    It’s not a requiem if the words are all about Kennedy conspiracies. It’s just another secular motet, possibly with devotional words we don’t get to read here. It’s like announcing that the Noir anime image song, “Canta per Me”, is a Kyrie setting, just because some of its lyrics are taken from the Kyrie.

    OTOH, it’s always grimly amusing how much more requiem Mass music shows up in the average video game in the course of a minute, than in the average American Catholic parish in the course of ten years. Bring back Catholic identity!

  • MJBubba

    Why is it that so many of the big-budget Hollywood romances of the past 60 years featured adultery? Titanic is just another one.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    MJBubba – As I recall, Rose and the rich guy were engaged, not married. So, “just” fornication.

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