It was a hundred years ago today that the most famous ocean voyage in history began. The Titanic, the unsinkable ship, and over 1500 of its passengers and crew, had merely four days left to live. As a historical event, Titanic proves that truth is stranger than fiction. If it were fiction, if it were made for a Hollywood screenplay, I doubt it would be hard to find folks willing to scoff at the melodrama and the over-the-top irony. And yet, it happened. It was the icon of the age of optimism; Captain Smith, the ill fated Ismay, the band playing on (most accounts saying they played Nearer My God To Thee), Thomas Andrews standing stoically by the mantle clock, the wealth of the world, the heroism, the poor and forgotten, women and children first, why the list goes on and on. And it really happened. Those were real people. If anything good came of Cameron's Oscar victory for his somewhat wide and shallow take on the disaster, it was that he did take a moment at the Oscar ceremony to remember that this really happened.
I sometimes wonder if that's what made the 1997 movie such a hit. I admit, I didn't hate it, as hating on the Titanic became the thing to do. It was good in parts, and many actors did a fine enough job with the material at hand. But as Avatar demonstrated, Cameron is a great director when it comes to technical matters, but rather a mile wide and an inch deep when it comes to characters, cliches, and story lines. But apart from DiCaprio's appeal to the young girl crowd, I wonder if part of the attraction was seeing actual real life drama from a real event in a time when society and culture had become, in their own way, isolated and insulated from just what history can do to a people.
Of course, one major theme of the Titanic disaster was missing from the movie, as it has been from all the coverage. Perhaps not unintentionally. The Titanic was, in many ways, the apex of the Age of Optimism. Armed with science, technology, and industry, the West had broken down barriers with invention and discovery to bring humanity to a place not dreamed about even as recently as the signing of the Declaration of Independence. There simply wasn't anything we couldn't do. Religion still had a place, a cultural place. An emotional place. A traditional place. But it was in science, invention, industry and technology in which we placed our trust. Ideals, philosophies, and political movements that mirrored this optimism did quite well.
This optimism would begin to unravel as the Titanic slipped into the depths of the Atlantic on that April night. It was finally obliterated at the end of 1918, when industry and political machinations left millions dead and rotting on the battlefields of Europe and beyond. Still, today, we have regained some of that blind optimism, haven't we? Science, technology, medical research - these are the things in which we place our trust today. We scoff at those who looked at the mighty hull of Titanic and imagined that humanity had finally overcome nature. But are we any better?
Some years ago, while I was ministering in Southern Indiana, I was watching NBC Today while getting ready for work. This is back when Katie Couric was still on. The talk of the day was genetics, human cloning, and the controversy over allowing scientists carte blanche vs. standing in the way of scientific discovery. Ms. Couric was interviewing a medical ethicist, whose name I can no longer remember. He was definitely of the mindset that the shackles must come off, and science must be given free reign. I had also watched several shows on PBS and the networks (we didn't have cable) suggesting the same thing. One was a two hour special produced by a host of scientific organizations and played on PBS reminding us that we didn't want to be like all those religious types who let superstitions and religious fanaticism get in the way of good old scientific discovery.
Anyway, the fellow being interviewed was asked what good he thought could come if the governments of the world simply stood aside and let science discover what science could discover about genetics. Would such a blank check counter any potential harm from something such as human cloning? Not to worry, he assured Katie. If science is allowed to pursue discovery without the hindrances of regulations and bans, in fifty years we will have eliminated disease as we know it. That morning I chuckled to myself. I told my wife that we could take that little boast and put it on the shelf next to that famous line 'this ship will never sink.'
As we remember those lost on that most infamous of nights, and reflect on all the information we know, the stories, the tales, the myths, the legends; it might be nice if we learn the bigger lesson that so many learned the hard way almost a hundred years ago. It would be nice if we used it to learn so that we don't have to wait for the inevitable hard lessons of our own arrogance today.