Titanic Decision ~ A Short Story by Rachel Brown

This piece was written for the following writing group exercise:

“Life Savings. You must choose to spare one life: either a religious leader who to all known facts is a good and decent man who has brought solace to thousands or a scientist who tests as brilliant but has never accomplished anything spectacular. Who do you save and why? You may, if you prefer, show a character answering the question.”

* * *

The plane dropped beneath me again and I clamped my lips as my stomach contents rose. I gripped the armrests harder, half expecting them to crack under the pressure of my fingers.

I glanced sideways at Pastor Bruce. He'd begun shutting down his laptop when the seatbelt light came on, and only now slid it into a protective foam slipcase. He zipped it inside the laptop bag, tucked it behind his legs and turned to look at me.

"Have you heard of John Harper?"

The plane lurched again. I shut my eyes against the nausea and fear. This was not ordinary turbulence. Any second now the oxygen masks would drop and we'd be told to brace for impact.

Sweat tricked down my nose, but I couldn't wipe it away. At six foot four and an ex-footballer, I knew people expected me to be impervious to fear. And gloated when they discovered my vulnerabilities.

I forced my eyelids open a crack and looked out the corner of my eye at Pastor Bruce. His expression showed nothing more than interest in my answer to his question.

"No," I managed hoarsely. "I haven't. Who is John Harper?"

Bruce leaned forward, the way he did whenever he spoke about something that interested him. If he thought me ridiculous for cowering in my chair like an overgrown child, he hid it well.

"Harper was a hero of the faith from early last century - but hardly anyone today has heard of him. He was a well-loved British pastor who'd been widowed several years when he was called to preach in Chicago. He set off across the Atlantic with his little daughter and his niece - on the Titanic."

The Titanic. I didn't want to know where this was heading.

"Uh, did they make it?"

"No." He shook his head, his eyes bright. "Harper died still serving his Lord and Saviour. He got his niece and little daughter into a lifeboat then ran back along the deck shouting, 'Women, children and the unsaved into the lifeboats!' As well putting the women and children before himself, Harper didn't want any man who wasn't ready to meet his Maker to risk his life."

Bruce didn't speak any louder than normal, but in the tense silence of the aircraft cabin his voice carried clearly. The aeroplane still dipped and shuddered but my attention was fixed on him.

"The Hollywood movie 'Titanic' made a poignant scene of the orchestra playing 'Nearer My God to Thee' yet there wasn't a single mention of Harper, one of the true heroes of the tragedy. It’s very possible it was he who requested the band play that hymn - he was certainly on the deck with them, giving no thought to his own safety but pleading with the passengers to come to Christ for the forgiveness of their sins and eternal salvation.

Even when the huge ship broke into two, and Pastor Harper leapt into the sea with more than fifteen hundred others, he continued to preach the good news of the gospel, swimming from one person to another and begging them to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ while there was still time."

"Amazing how anyone could know that since they all drowned," a cynical voice muttered from the row behind us.

I bristled, but Pastor Bruce continued, unperturbed by the sarcastic remark. "Of all the passengers in the water, only six were rescued after the Titanic sunk. One of the six was a young Scot, who told a reporter he was the last man converted through John Harper's ministry. He told how he'd been drifting on a piece of wreckage and Harper had called to him, 'Man, are you saved?' and when he'd said no, and refused his offer of the gospel, Harper pulled off his life belt and gave it to him, saying, 'Then you need this more than me.' Harper drifted by the same young man a little later, asked if he was saved yet, and continued to exhort him to turn to Christ until his own strength was gone and he sank beneath the waves. The young man did put his trust in Jesus that night, and testified of his gratitude to Harper afterwards."

The seat belt light flickered off. The captain announced that the turbulence had passed, and a hostess appeared with the drinks trolley. A palpable sense of relief rippled through the cabin.

I wiped the moisture from my eyes and grinned sheepishly at Bruce. I felt more grateful to my own hero than ever.

Not only had his calm conversation kept me from freaking out during the turbulence, but John Harper's story had given me a new perspective. No-one would have complained if Harper had taken a seat in the lifeboat with his motherless child - but he wasn't prepared to take the place of someone who wasn't ready to face God's judgement. Would I ever count my life as nothing compared to the chance of serving God?

The air-hostess handed me a welcome cup of tea, and I sank back into my seat with it. Now the near-crisis had passed I found myself re-imagining it, this time with me heroically rescuing Pastor Bruce. I'd longed to repay my gratitude ever since he led me to a new life in Jesus when he'd spoken at my college, and as our plane circled above London I dreamed up scenarios where I exchanged his faulty oxygen mask with mine, or I hauled him from the wreckage moments before fire engulfed the plane. I'd gladly die for this man.

Despite my imaginative martyrdom I was relieved when the plane touched down. I began to usher Bruce ahead of me down the aisle, but a middle-aged woman from the row in front of us reached out to him.

"I couldn't help hearing what you were talking about . . . about the man who died on the Titanic." Her voice conveyed urgency. "And with the plane dropping like that, well, I knew if I died I wasn't ready to meet God. Could you please . . ."

I didn't hear the rest of the conversation, but dropped back into my seat as Bruce sat beside her. These unexpected moments with strangers were part and parcel of travelling as his assistant. I quietly prayed until an air-hostess herded us off the plane, then collected our luggage while they continued to speak in the terminal.

Finally, I had to interrupt. If we didn't get into a taxi within a few minutes, we'd never make tonight's debate. When the woman bid us goodbye with shining eyes, I found myself thanking God for the turbulence.

"So, are you ready to meet the world's most intelligent man?" Bruce asked me in the back seat of the taxi.

"No," I admitted, with a rueful shake of my head. Leith Manton was a brilliant young scientist, famous for his incredible IQ. However, he was equally renowned for his outspoken views against organised religion in general and Christianity specifically.

"They say he is the next Einstein. Perhaps he'll be the man who finds a cure for cancer?"

I shrugged. "Maybe. But I'm more worried about tonight's debate. I've seen the way he shreds people with his intellect. I can't feel good about you being in his firing line."

"With my puny intellect then, it's good I'm not planning to outsmart him," Bruce replied, smiling. "No matter how Manton or anyone works to argue it away, everything God has made bears witness to His existence - and the moral law He has written on our own conscience tells us we're sinful and cannot stand before a Holy God. My aim is simply to let people know that through the sacrifice of His own Son, God has made a way for us to find atonement for our sins and through Christ's resurrection, to gain eternal life. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the simple Gospel cuts right through traditions, presuppositions - and massive intellects - and speaks to our heart."

I took a deep breath when our taxi pulled up at the Great Hall of the University. Thousands of people, like the woman on the aeroplane, found solace through Pastor Bruce's ministry. Many others, though, were stirred to passionate hate by his uncompromising message.

Bruce patted my shoulder. "Just remember, Leith Manton is just a young man like you, who needs to know the forgiveness of God as desperately as you did. No matter what great good for mankind he may achieve in this life, when he stands before God none of that will count for anything unless his sins have been washed away by the blood of Christ."

I was grateful for that reminder many times during the debate. It was hard not to feel resentment toward someone who employed his powerful intellect to ridicule the man I loved as a father. The man who continued to calmly state the message of God revealed in the Bible, all the while knowing the vitriolic response that would provoke.

From my position at the side of the stage I glanced out at the audience. A young man toward the back was growing increasingly agitated. Perhaps Manton wasn't God's only quarry this evening - maybe He was using the debate to convict this student of his sin, as He had convicted me in such similar circumstances.

As I turned back to the two men at the podium, a flash of movement caught my eye. The student I'd been watching was hurling something. I began to move, even while I strained to focus on its smooth arc toward the stage.

Cylindrical, like a water flask.

Metal, like -

I sprang forward. Every muscle strained to reach the podium before the grenade.

Two metres now.

One metre.

I knew my strength. I knew my bulk. I knew my body could shield only one of the men standing at the podium.

And I knew without hesitation which man that would be.

I leapt, the explosion searing my back as I knocked him to the ground.

- - - - - - -



Two men were killed by a grenade detonated during a Science -v- Religion debate at the Metropolitan University last night.

International Speaker Pastor Bruce Hinkley died instantly in the blast. His assistant, former pro-football player Sean Jones, 24, died on the way to hospital as a result of massive injuries. Dr Leith Manton, the world-famous scientist, was admitted to hospital suffering mild concussion and shock. Witnesses say moments before the explosion Mr Jones leapt forward and knocked Dr Manton to the ground, using his own body as a shield.

The attacker has yet to be found but a police source says . . .


* Note: The story of John Harper and of his efforts of urging those dying around him in the freezing Atlantic to find salvation in Christ is a true (and documented) story. The following web page gives a summary of the account, and links to online documents and news items from the time of the Titanic tragedy. A biography (currently out of print) has also been published.

Read the Christianity Today article on John Harper