Soon after "Titanic" opened in the United States, director James Cameron ventured into cyberspace to field questions from waves of stricken fans.
One mother described how her young daughter sat spellbound through the three-hour-plus romance between a first-class girl trapped in a loveless engagement with a cruel fiance and a starving artist who liberates her, then surrenders his life to save her in the icy North Atlantic. As they left the theater, the mother said her daughter noticed older girls weeping.
"It's OK, don't worry," the child said, giving one girl a hug. "Rose is with her Jack now."
"That's so sweet," wrote Cameron. Nevertheless, he told another participant in the Online Tonight session that he wouldn't answer one common question: Did the now-elderly Rose die in the last scene, to be reunited with her lover aboard the Titanic in a vision of heaven, or was she merely dreaming?
As he immersed himself in Titanic lore, Cameron said he reached one conclusion. "I think I discovered the truth of its lesson -- which is all you have is today." In another public statement, he described his film in more sweeping terms. "'Titanic' is not just a cautionary tale -- a myth, a parable, a metaphor for the ills of mankind. It is also a story of faith, courage, sacrifice and, above all else, love."
With receipts of $1.1 billion and rising, "Titanic" has filled a hole in the hearts of millions of romance-starved moviegoers. Whether Cameron intended to or not, Hollywood's most successful movie of all time also has changed how at least one generation views one of this century's most symbolic events.
For millions, the Titanic is now a triumphant story of how one upper-crust girl found salvation -- body and soul -- through sweaty sex, modern art, self-esteem lingo and social rebellion. "Titanic" is a passion play celebrating the moral values of the 1960s as sacraments. Rose sums it up by saying that she could abandon her old life and family because her forbidden lover "saved me in every way that a person can be saved."
Millions are walking their children down theater aisles, often making many such pilgrimages, in support of this cathartic message about the power of romantic love. Major religious groups that have greeted similar films with howls of protest are silent. A few people wonder why.
"'Titanic' reminds me of the distinctions between people of faith and secularists," said conservative commentator Elizabeth Farah. "While all agree that death is inevitable and very often unexpected, the religious and secularists do not agree on the behavior life's fragility should promote. Those of faith know they may meet their Maker at any moment, at which time they will account for their sins. Their fear and deep love for God inspires them in their constant struggle for righteousness. To the secularist, life is short -- get what you want - when you want it, and in whatever way necessary."
The heroes of this modern "Titanic" fit into this latter category, said Farah. Their sins become virtues, because they are rebelling against people who are portrayed as even worse. This isn't just a bad movie, she added, it is "manipulative" and "fundamentally immoral."
Father Patrick Henry Reardon, a philosophy professor and Orthodox priest, goes even further in the next issue of the ecumenical journal Touchstone. He calls the movie "satanic." The people who built the Titanic were so proud of their command of technology that they boasted that God couldn't sink their ship. Today, the creators of the movie "Titanic" substitute romantic love as the highest power. Jack becomes Rose's savior and he does more than save her life.
"Had that been all that happened, I would not have complained," said Reardon. "But they made that Christ symbol into a very attractive anti-Christ. The line that set me off I believe also to have been the defining line of the film: the assertion that the sort of saving that Jack did was, ultimately, the only kind of saving possible. If that was the thesis statement of the film, then I start looking for the cloven hoof and sniffing for brimstone."