Culture

Titanic chivalry

Culture | Forget the Academy's hype; Titanic of the silver screen missed the spiritual significance of the real heroes

Issue: "Clinton: Final straw?," March 28, 1998

Going into Academy Awards night, James Cameron's Titanic was considered unsinkable. But in that movie, most of the truth remains a buried treasure.
Mr. Cameron painstakingly ensured technical accuracy on carpet designs and woodworkings aboard the luxury liner, but he utterly failed to present the story in a way that communicates the deeper, spiritual significance of the tragedy.
Titanic has the rich seeking to bribe their way to freedom, the poor deliberately prevented from reaching safety, and the nobility of Christian sacrifice minimized, ignored, and, at times, ridiculed. With minor exceptions, the true story of the sinking has been carefully sanitized to remove any partiality to the patriarchal doctrine of "women and children first." By creating such a compelling, evocative, but politically correct vision of the past, Mr. Cameron may have immunized an entire generation from ever learning history's true lessons at a time when they are most desperately needed.
Here's the real story. Titanic was the biggest, the brashest, the most magnificent and opulent structure ever to float. Her passenger list boasted the most famous names in the world: the Guggenheims, Astors, and Strausses-the captains of industry. More than 100,000 people attended her launching.
In every respect she was the ship of dreams. She was the floating embodiment of the new age of scientific optimism, and the international symbol of the century that would finally realize Utopia. If ever there were an event that threatened to rival the tower-building efforts of Nimrod, that event was the creation and launch of Titanic.
Less than a half-century had passed since Darwin shocked the world with his theory, but already many believed the evolutionary ascent of man had climaxed, leaving him impenetrable to natural and supernatural forces. Man had finally conquered nature. Titanic's watertight compartments, her state-of-the-art telegraph system, and her gargantuan size would prove this. After all, "even God himself could not sink this ship."
God, who does not take kindly to such gross displays of human arrogance, pronounced judgment on the vessel and everything that was associated with her.
The loss of 1,522 people is always a tragedy, but it is only when one examines the facts surrounding the ship's demise that the far-reaching extent of that judgment manifests. If something could go wrong, it did-and in spades. The list of "if only's" is seemingly endless: If only they had heeded the iceberg warnings; if only there had been enough lifeboats; if only they had not misplaced the binoculars; if only Titanic had not reversed engines; if only the ship in the distance had come; if only the wireless operator had been willing to receive the final message.
Had any one of these "if only's" been prevented, the Titanic would be little more than a footnote in history. But Titanic foundered. The probability of all of these circumstances happening in the order in which they occurred is so infinitesimally small as to force even hardened sceptics to acknowledge that the orchestration of these events could not be the product of mere chance. God appears to have been making a point.
It is difficult today to appreciate truly the impact the disaster had on the public psyche in 1912. There really are no modern comparisons. In the span of two-and-a-half hours-the length of a Shakespearean tragedy-a human drama was enacted in the North Atlantic that would foreshadow the horror of the most terror-ridden century of the modern world. The dreams and confidence of an entire generation sank with the great ocean liner.
Titanic survivor Jack Thayer later wrote that the demise of the White Star vessel was "the event which not only made the world rub its eyes and awake, but awake with a start.... To my mind the world of today awoke April 15, 1912." In this respect, Titanic may be, as historian Walter Lord has speculated, the most important news story of the 20th century.
In the years that followed the sinking of the ship, Titanic came to symbolize different things to different groups. Many perceived the ship to be a modern incarnation of the Tower of Babel. The sinking represented God's unwillingness to allow man to build any edifice of invincibility or to seek salvation through technology. The frequent boasts of Titanic's indestructibility by builders and promoters of the leviathan were viewed as a direct challenge to the Creator.
Yet where the sin of human presumption abounded, the grace of God abounded all the more. Consequently, many Christians took solace in the profoundly moving examples of courage and bold manhood represented by those men who faithfully honored the command "women and children first." With only a few exceptions, Titanic's men willingly gave up their seats on lifeboats for others, thus exemplifying the Bible verse: "Greater love hath no man than he lay down his life for another."
The most poignant examples came from the many incidents in which families were split up. Husbands literally looked into the eyes of their wives and children, whispered tender last words, and lowered their families into lifeboats with the full realization that they would never see them again. Thus, one of Titanic's greatest ironies is that she became a symbol of duty and faith.
First Lady Nellie Taft honored this spirit of sacrifice by mounting a national campaign to raise funds for a monument that would carry the inscription: "To the brave men who gave their lives that women and children might be saved." The structure was built in Washington, D.C., using the one-dollar donations of American housewives. Mrs. Taft explained: "I am grateful to do this in gratitude to the chivalry of American manhood."
The suffragettes of 1912 had another opinion. To them the Titanic was a symbol of patriarchal oppression. The philosophy that man should be protector and defender of womankind was a fundamental impediment to their cause. They resented the fact that the suffragette movement was criticized by newspapers which ran articles asking questions like "Boats or votes?"
Consequently, feminists argued that the policy "women and children first" (which led to a death ratio of nine men for every one woman on the Titanic) was little more than a patriarchal sentiment that hid an agenda of suppression. Leading suffragettes actually argued that Titanic women were wrong to have accepted seats on the boats from men.
In 1996, a boat carrying thousands of passengers sank off the shores of Indonesia. Like the Titanic disaster, hundreds died. Like the Titanic disaster, the ship was inadequately suited with life boats. Unlike the Titanic disaster, the men received preferential lifeboat treatment over the women and children. Women died that men might live. Such a perversion of the natural order is the inevitable consequence of a culture that rejects the atonement of Jesus Christ as a central ordering principle for society.
For 1,000 years this principle has guided Western civilization. Simply stated, that principle is this-the groom dies for the bride, the strong suffer for the weak, and the highest expression of love is to give your life for another. This is the true meaning of biblical patriarchy.
The men aboard the Titanic recognized their duty because they had been raised in a culture that implicitly embraced such notions. Only by returning to these foundations can we ever hope to live in a society in which men will make the self-conscious decision to die so that women and children may live. The alternative is not merely G.I. Jane. It is barbarism.
Mr. Phillips is a lawyer and president of the Christian Boys' and Men's Titanic Society.

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