Interest in the RMS Titanic at the centenary of its infamous demise is as massive as the unnamed iceberg that sank the British passenger liner in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912, killing more than 1,500 of the 2,200 people aboard.
Why the enduring fascination? In a list of the world’s worst maritime disasters, Titanic’s sinking, while horrible indeed, only ranks No. 7 in terms of lives lost. The December 20, 1987, collision of the passenger ferry Dona Paz with the tanker Vector killed more than 4,300 people in the Philippines. The second-worst disaster, the sinking of the SS Kiangya on China’s Huangpu River, cost between 2,750 and 3,920 lives. (By contrast, the sinking of the MS Costa Concordia cruise ship this past January led to 30 known deaths.)
A number of factors probably account for our insatiable curiosity. First, like all fallen descendants of Adam and Eve, we are simply drawn to a train wreck — or, in this case, a ship wreck. Chicago has some of the nation’s worst traffic jams. They are caused, at least in part, by what traffic reporters call “gapers’ delays.” These are caused by drivers who can’t help but tap on their brakes and look at a nearby accident scene, slowing down everyone else. We are simply drawn, like vultures, to a good tragedy.
Second, the history surrounding the Titanic is particularly compelling. We are drawn to the shocking confluence of factors that, in concert, brought down a ship that was thought to be unsinkable and killed so many passengers and crews needlessly: Captain Edward Smith’s dubious decision to run the Titanic at night, at full speed, in waters where icebergs had been sighted; too few lifeboats; and the failure of a nearby ship, the Californian, to come to the Titanic’s aid despite noting her flares.
Third, there is a sense of not only the end of an era, but of the end of a world, which the Titanic, in a sense, personified. She was the most luxurious liner of her era, which was hanging on the doorstep of the devastation of two world wars, a depression, and the eventual collapse of the British Empire.
Fourth, we see the Titanic — shiny, proud, and ultimately doomed — and feel our own vulnerability. Despite all our technological advances, we have perhaps never felt less secure. We worry about everything: red meat, our PSAs, and on and on. We sense that our wealth is powerless to save us and is perhaps actually killing us.
Fifth, there is the eerie feeling among many that the ill-fated White Star liner represents a parable for our own uncertain times. And as we face our existential threats — possible nuclear strikes, economic meltdown, and the collapse of longstanding societal norms — we wonder whether we’re up to the challenge.
Conservative pundit Mark Steyn notes the damning character differences between our era and that of the Titanic a century ago. “On the Titanic, the male passengers gave their lives for the women and would never have considered doing otherwise,” Steyn writes. “On the Costa Concordia, in the words of a female passenger, ‘There were big men, crew members, pushing their way past us to get into the lifeboat.’ After similar scenes on the MV Estonia a few years ago, Roger Kohen of the International Maritime Organization told Time magazine: ‘There is no law that says women and children first. That is something from the age of chivalry.’
“If, by ‘the age of chivalry,’ you mean our great-grandparents’ time.”
And perhaps the age in which we find ourselves is irredeemable. If so, this would not be the first time for God’s people, who periodically must be taught the painful but ultimately bracing lesson that this world is not — and indeed cannot be — our ultimate home. Our cabin, however comfortable, is only on a sinking ship.
However, we have a sure Anchor, whatever the storms of life. As the Psalmist says:
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble at its swelling.
Some surviving passengers reported that when the Titanic finally went down, the ship’s musicians were calmly playing the hymn, “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” Whatever happens to us on our own sinking ship, are we prepared to do the same?
Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Today editor at large, is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us, Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century, and coauthor of The Sacrament of Evangelism. Stan blogs at http://stanguthrie.com/blog.
Publication date: April 11, 2012