“Many brave things were done that night, but none were more brave than those done by men playing minute after minute as the ship settled quietly lower and lower in the sea. The music they played served alike as their own immortal requiem and their right to be recalled on the scrolls of undying fame.” – Anonymous second-class passenger and survivor from the RMS Titanic”
I guess I never realized how pragmatic my 7 year old self was. I remember the first, second, and twentieth times that I watched James Cameron’s Titanic, the scene where the musicians kept playing even past the point of knowing it would result in their death. I was always so confused as to the purpose. I always thought, “How foolish are these men?” Even as a child, I was recognizing what my brain diagnosed as a misguided sense of nobility and honor that I had no patience for, because it wasn’t logical, efficient or just very smart for self-preservation. But something about the scene still gripped me. Here’s what I think I’ve learned about that scene in the last twenty years:
For the majority of my time living as a self-identified Christian, I fervently reinforced and lived inside of the idea that any art, deed, thought or action that wasn’t explicitly concerned with the end goal of spreading the gospel (converting people), was at best ‘less than’ those same things that were concerned with that, or at worst completely antithetical to living life as a Christian. Songs had to be about God, paintings had to depict something obviously Christian, non-ministry jobs were still a mission field, but I’m still not exactly sure what a Christian plumber’s job was supposed to be (maybe douse a house with holy water?).
In this kind of worldview, the Titanic musicians would have been better served shouting out directions to the life boats, painting signs to the exits, or using their instruments as physical tools towards some end or something. I got to the point where I realized that’s…not a very compelling “testimony”, but at the same time I wrestled with the thought of, “Okay, but if they save a single life, what does it matter if it’s interesting as a story or not?” There was still this unresolved conflict, that likes to occasionally spring back up every now and again in new scenarios. How do I balance the pragmatic mandate to try and help people escape a doomed fate, which I believe in, with the beauty, mystery and wonder that I find in the story of Christ or in the idea of a God that I keep finding out is bigger and bigger and bigger than I could ever imagine? In a lot of ways, it seems like the decidedly human battle of head vs. heart.
Enter Terrence Malick, one of the best Christian filmmakers of the last century who will never be known as a “Christian filmmaker”. His movies lack many if not most of the elements you would see in movies marketed towards the American evangelical church, but beneath the surface there is a distinctly Christian spirituality that shines through in message and in form, functioning as liturgies of sorts that don’t aim to just speak a message, but to prime the pumps of the heart by training us to look a certain way. To tell a story, but also to live out a story in a way that sinks into our bones and informs our worldview. Nick Olson, a film critic, had this to say about Malick:
“He seems to me to be pressing for us to awaken our own inner depths of subjectivity and inhabit the outlines he’s setting forth. He wants these grace notes to profoundly shape us—to impress upon us in the most personal way.”
Now, admittedly, I gave up a long time ago on being a voice of authority when it comes to theology. That said, as I was reading about liturgies and what exactly that term has meant throughout church history and tradition, Wikipedia said that, “…liturgy is a communal response to, and participation in, the sacred through activity reflecting praise, thanksgiving, supplication, or repentance. It thus forms the basis for establishing a relationship with a divine agency, as well as with other participants in the liturgy.” In the way that I’ve come to understand it, this is the heart of how Jesus expected us to live when he taught us to pray, “Let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” To be able to tap into the divine, to allow that to transform, to trust that something much greater happening than what’s seen in our surface level understanding.
Now here’s where this loses any shreds of eloquence it started with, because all throughout my formal education writing conclusions was the hardest part of any assignment, but here’s what I’m getting at. Church culture likes to argue this or that’s. One I get stuck in a lot is art that serves some other purpose, or art for art’s sake. Malick has shown me that both are possible. In his own words, “For an hour, or for two days, or longer, these films can enable small changes of heart, changes that mean the same thing: to live better and to love more.” Whereas plenty of other filmmakers, other artists, other pastors, other math teachers, other accountants, other plumbers, other x’s, y’s or z’s might do what they do to provide an avenue of escapism or, to pragmatically get straight to the bottom line, or to “create art for art’s sake,” Malick boasts an entirely different motivation. His intention is to not only produce good, beautiful, and truthful works of art but to also transform hearts and minds. He seeks to shift our orientation to the world, opening our eyes to the reality of the gospel; Malick is attempting to lead us away from the way of nature and toward the way of grace.
Wallace Hartley was a violinist, and the leader of the band on the Titanic. A former coworker of his is quoted as saying, “ I know he often said that music was a bigger weapon for stopping disorder than anything on earth. He knew the value of the weapon he had, and I think he proved his point.” He lived that out, and while to my young eyes or to a quick glance it might not have seemed like his last moments alive were the most efficient or logical, I can’t get away from the belief that God was actively at work through that tragedy, even if it wasn’t something that could be checked in a box or counted by a number. Fitting that the final song they played was Nearer My God to Thee.