James Cameron’s Titanic is one of the top-grossing films of all time. It is the fictional account of a love story as told by an old woman who was a first-class passenger on Titanic. As a young woman being forced into marriage to a wealthy steel magnate, Rose longs to escape the wealth and privilege of society. Her suicide attempt is foiled by a wandering artist named Jack, who “rescues her in every way [she] could be rescued.” Their intention is to get off the ship together in New York, to run away and leave all her responsibilities – and her wealthy fiancée – behind, but instead, the ship hits an iceberg and sinks.
All things considered, I should not like this movie. It plays into class prejudices and political correctness. It is about an immoral love affair that plays out over a three day period. It is heavy-handed with its stereotypes and depicts the majority of the ship’s officers as scoundrels. And its heroine is a self-absorbed spoiled brat that bears little resemblance to period authenticity in her behavior. But for some reason, be it the beauty of the world James Cameron first creates and then floods with water, or the tragedy that in so many small ways could have been avoided, it is a film I continue to love in spite of its historical inaccuracies and absurdities. Never mind its weak dialogue, or its melodramatic final hour, or the bookend modern plot that bores me, whenever I sit down to watch it, I am transported to another era, to a place none of us will ever go, to a world in which historical figures interact, and some of them break our heart in knowing what is coming.
One minister whose thesis on the film I read suspected it appealed to audiences because of Jack’s ultimate selflessness in undertaking the survival of the woman he loved at great personal cost. That may very well be true. However much I may disapprove of Jack’s “natural” art, he does sacrifice his life for the woman he loves and gives her the strength to go on, a legacy that prompts her to whistle for the one circling lifeboat even though it would have been easier to give up. He sets Rose free from a world she hates and that enslaved her. In that sense, even though it is full of moral flaws, Titanic reminds us that the greatest sacrifice is to give up your life for someone else, and to love them enough not to mind your sacrifice.
Is it that even in the hearts of secular audiences, we all admire that trait and long for a savior? I think so, because even outside of Christianity, everyone admires the same moral traits. We admire heroism and scorn cowardice just as we admire selflessness and despise selfishness.
The irony is that where Jack may be selfless, Rose is not. In fact, she is the most selfish character in the entire film. Even though her abandonment of her mother will mean leaving her in dire financial straits, she still allows Ruth to believe she has died. Her behavior dismisses Cal’s feelings. Even if he is boorish and controlling, he did not deserve to be treated like that. Even at the end, she enters the afterlife (or is it a dream?) surrounded by photographs not her husband, or her children, or her grandchildren, but her own accomplishments! And in death, she returns not to the husband she later married, but to the deck of Titanic, and the arms of the boy she once loved.
Aren’t we all like that? Even in our better moments we are still selfish. We still have our own best interest in mind. It is something we have to fight each and every day. Our savior, someone who “saves us in every way we could be saved,” was human for awhile too, and died, and left us… for a time. But when we give our hearts over to Him, it doesn’t matter if we struggle in being selfish. It means that one day we will be with Him again.
Titanic is overrated and contains elements that make it difficult for a Christian to reconcile, but at its heart it is a love story that transcends death. That is what touches us and makes us love it in spite of ourselves. Most of us long for that kind of a love story, one that does not end when one of us breathes our last.
What we don’t realize is that we are already in that love story.