Was Jesus Gay? (Part 3 of 3)

Loren RossonJesus was gay?

That’s what Morton Smith wanted us to believe.

And just to be clear at the outset: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the idea that Jesus may have been gay.

But there’s no real evidence hinting that he was–except perhaps in the Secret Gospel of Mark, which is most likely a hoax.

"The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith's Invention of Secret Mark" by Stephen L. Carlson

“The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith’s Invention of Secret Mark” by Stephen L. Carlson is available from the library in paperback.

If you want a real-life conspiracy thriller, then Stephen Carlson’s Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith’s Invention of Secret Mark is the book for you. It’s a brilliant piece of detective work showing how biblical scholar Morton Smith fooled the academy for decades, with his alleged “discovery” in 1958 of a lost letter containing a fragment of a different version of Mark’s gospel.

Revising the raising of Lazarus
This “Secret Gospel of Mark” tells a story similar to the raising of Lazarus in John 11:1-44. But instead of raising Lazarus, Jesus revives a young man who “looked at Jesus, loved him, and began to beg him to be with him.” Later in the evening, the young man comes to Jesus “wearing a linen cloth over his naked body; and he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God.”

Smith’s “discovery” divided his colleagues. Some accepted the document (never seen by anyone) as genuine, but others thought it a forgery, probably done by Smith himself, who was gay and could now conveniently go on to publish books suggesting that Jesus had sex with the disciples.

His thesis? That Jesus’ baptism ceremonies were used to enter a state of hallucination, and ascend into heaven; in the kingdom of God the disciples were liberated from the Jewish law; and their spiritual union with Jesus was accompanied by a physical union of sex.

Forgery vs. hoax
It took a long time to debunk Secret Mark–until well after Smith’s death in 1991. Carlson’s Gospel Hoax (2005) was the first to uncover embarrassing signs of an elaborate prank, the most notable one being Jesus’ saying about “salt losing its savor” (Mark 9:50; Matthew 5:13; Luke 14:34), which in Secret Mark is reworded to imply free-flowing salt. Iodized salt is not only a 20th-century invention; the inventor was a company named Morton Salt.

But the relationship between hoaxing and forgery remains unclear. Forgery is fraud, and on one level it does seem that Morton Smith really wanted people to believe that Jesus was gay, and invested homosexuality with religious significance.

Carlson insists it’s a hoax:

“Secret Mark functions as a hoax designed to test, not a forgery designed to cheat.” (Gospel Hoax, p. 79)

"Ancient Gospel or Modern Forgery?" edited by Tony Burke

“Ancient Gospel or Modern Forgery?” is available from the library in paperback.

There’s no denying that on close scrutiny, Secret Mark keeps breaking down into hilarious jokes. One of the funniest (besides the salt metaphor) is an allusion to the 19th-century play Salome, written by Oscar Wilde, who was a gay martyr. The gospel figure of Salome is used in conjunction with a particular phrase from the play, in order to imply that Jesus wanted nothing to do with women. This joke was spotted by Peter Jeffery, working independently of Carlson.

So maybe fraudulent and hoaxing motives were both at work.

But I shouldn’t imply that Smith’s forgery/hoax has been put to bed, because believe it or not, it still has defenders. A few months ago a series of debates was published, Ancient Gospel or Modern Forgery? Check it out, and enter the storm of a controversy that’s unlikely to die in the near future.

About Loren Rosson

Loren Rosson heads up the circulation department at the Nashua Public Library. He's worked at the library since graduating from Lewis and Clark College, with the exception of the two years he spent in Lesotho with the Peace Corps, teaching high school.

Was Jesus Seditious? (Part 2 of 3)

Loren RossonIn the last post we saw a scholar’s approach to the question of Jesus’ wife, and today we’ll examine two popular accounts of Jesus’ politics.

Within months of each other, Bill O’Reilly and Reza Aslan published books that are still on bestseller lists: Killing Jesus: A History and Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

O’Reilly is a conservative Christian, Aslan a liberal Muslim, and yet their books argue remarkably similar things. You’d never guess that, based on the publicity: O’Reilly works for Fox News, which went out of its way to belittle Aslan’s book in a notorious interview.

"Killing Jesus: A History" by Bill O'Reilly

“Killing Jesus: A History” by Bill O’Reilly is available from the library in hardcover, audiobook on CD, and downloadable audiobook.

They both agree that Jesus was a revolutionary who opposed the Roman occupation of Judea, and stood against the oppressive system of taxes and tithes demanded by Rome and the Jewish priesthood.

The difference is that O’Reilly interprets this within a libertarian framework, while Aslan gives it a more left-wing thrust, and while each has problems, the latter is more historically sound.

In the agrarian world of ancient Judea and Galilee, Jesus wasn’t antitax because he was for “small government,” but because taxes were being squeezed from the poor and used for luxurious city projects in places like Jerusalem and Sepphoris. He was essentially demanding that the rich stop subsidizing their comforts and help the poor instead.

Then what about Jesus’ famous command? When asked if it was lawful to pay taxes, he said:

“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” (Mark 12:17; Matthew 22:21; Luke 20:25)

Most Christians today understand this in terms of separation of church and state — that one should give Caesar worldly things and God spiritual things. But in Jesus’ day, religion and politics went hand-in-hand. O’Reilly and Aslan acknowledge this, and suggest that Jesus was making a dangerous political statement, though a cleverly evasive one.


“Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan is available from the library in hardcover, e-book, downloadable audiobook, and audiobook on CD.

O’Reilly says that “Jesus marginalized Rome without directly offending it.” (p. 204)

Aslan explains at more length:

“According to Jesus, Caesar is entitled to be ‘given back’ the denarius coin, not because he deserves tribute, but because it is his coin: his name and picture are stamped on it. God has nothing to do with it. By extension, God is entitled to be ‘given back’ the land the Romans have seized for themselves because it is God’s land. ‘The Land is mine,’ says the Lord (Leviticus 25:23). Caesar has nothing to do with it.” (p. 77)

Their interpretations square with what many scholars tell us. William Herzog, for instance, says that Jesus was telling people to pay their taxes “in contempt”–to give back to Caesar his filthy coins, because he minted them in his image and they should be returned to the idolater in whose image they are made (see Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, p. 232). That was less a call to pay taxes, and more a cry to expel the coins from the promised land. It was coded speech, not because Jesus wanted to confuse people, but because he was avoiding entrapment.

I enjoyed reading Killing Jesus and Zealot, even when I disagreed with each on a number of points. But it’s striking that on the question of sedition they are so close, and here I mostly agree: Jesus was seditious for opposing tyranny in a nonviolent way; he thought God would deal with Caesar in due course.

Next up: Morton Smith’s gay Jesus.

About Loren Rosson

Loren Rosson heads up the circulation department at the Nashua Public Library. He's worked at the library since graduating from Lewis and Clark College, with the exception of the two years he spent in Lesotho with the Peace Corps, teaching high school.

Was Jesus scandalous? (Part 1 of 3)

Loren RossonWas Jesus scandalous? Perhaps not in the ways many people think.

Jesus may have had a wife, but if so, we’ll probably never know who she was.

Jesus seems to have opposed taxes, but his anger was directed at an agrarian empire that had little in common with the targets of modern libertarians.

Jesus could have been gay, but the odds are he wasn’t, and a certain “lost gospel” hinting that he was is probably a hoax.

In my next three posts I’ll review recent books about Jesus, and see what experts and popular writers have been saying about these things.

The Wife of Jesus

“The Wife of Jesus” is available at the library in hardcover.

The first I really enjoyed: The Wife of Jesus by Anthony Le Donne, a biblical scholar who suggests that Christians have been right for the wrong reasons. Jesus was celibate, not because he was “too holy for sex,” but because he had wild ideas about honor and family.

Subverting marriage
Marriage was a cultural given in Jesus’ day and the most important way of honoring your parents and surviving economically. But at least by the time he was in his thirties (by the time of his gospel ministry), Jesus was dishonoring his blood ties and reshaping a spiritual family around him. Like John the Baptist, he lived as if the world was coming to an end. Providing for future generations (property rights secured through marriage) wasn’t a part of his message.

And he said there were different kinds of eunuchs–those who lack reproductive organs, but also those who choose celibacy for the sake of God’s kingdom (Matthew 19:12). “In all of these ways,” says Le Donne, “Jesus subverted civic masculinity and quite possibly the institution of marriage, which stood at the center of civic masculinity.” (p. 128)

Severing his blood ties
Le Donne thinks Jesus may have been married prior to all of this–say, in his twenties–and that his wife died in childbirth, as was common. Only when he left home and became a prophet was he flagrantly dishonoring his blood ties. Of course, from his point of view, he wasn’t being dishonorable at all: he thought of his followers as his true family; his blood relations were no longer real.

And here we get some unpleasant gospel teachings: Jesus said that his family were not his biological kin, but those who did the will of God (Mark 3:31-35). He said that he hadn’t come to bring peace but division–“to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother”; that if you loved your biological family more than you loved him, you were unworthy (Matthew 10:34-36). Indeed, you had to hate your biological family to become a disciple (Luke 14:26).

Following Jesus meant surrendering your social security, sacrificing your inheritance rights, hating your family, and becoming a homeless itinerant. The irony is that Christians who see Jesus as “above sex” tend to be the same who champion “family values,” which Jesus had no use for.

I love this book and wish there were more like it. It’s carefully argued without any sensationalism. Jesus was scandalous, but for his celibacy, not for (plausibly) having a wife at an earlier point. I find it intriguing that celibacy was considered unholy . . . and yet Jesus took the unholy and made it his badge of honor.

Next up: Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus and Reza Aslan’s Zealot.

About Loren Rosson

Loren Rosson heads up the circulation department at the Nashua Public Library. He's worked at the library since graduating from Lewis and Clark College, with the exception of the two years he spent in Lesotho with the Peace Corps, teaching high school.

Whiskey, petticoats, and surgery by candlelight

Jen McCormack“I cannot help you become a physician. What you are asking is impossible.”

"My Name Is Mary Sutter" is available from the library in hardcover and audio download

“My Name Is Mary Sutter” is available from the library in hardcover and audio download

These are some of the first words Mary Sutter hears from Dr. James Blevens.

Mary has heard this many times but she refuses to give up her dreams; while her twin sister Jenny was blessed with good looks, Mary inherited her mother’s skill at midwifery as well as her ambition and outspokenness.

So with James Blevens’ words echoing in her ears and the opening shots of the Civil War echoing across the South, Mary does the only thing she is permitted to do as woman: follow the Union armies into war as a nurse, at times provisioned only with water, whiskey, and the bandages she tears from her own petticoats.

Performing surgery by the book
If you are interested in the history of medicine like I am you’ll appreciate the chapters in which Mary is working alongside Dr. William Stipp at the Union Hotel Hospital, the two of them learning surgical techniques from textbooks and wondering what to do with the limbs that they’ve amputated. And infection control? They’ve never heard of it, although they did use some interesting methods to treat fevers.

But beyond the drama of war and battlefield medicine My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira is also about a young woman disappointed by love and struggling to forge an identity beyond that of daughter and sister. Mary leaves her mother Amelia home alone to care for pregnant Jenny, and the correspondence between them is poignant even as Mary resists Amelia’s pleas to return home.

And although Mary was never considered the beautiful sister her passion and dedication is attractive to the doctors she serves alongside, and even in the midst of war the possibility of a new love emerges. I made it all the way to the last chapter of the book without guessing how Mary’s story would end and enjoyed every minute of it.

Looking for more recommendations for historical fiction? Leave a comment below or email me directly at Jennifer.Hinderer@nashualibrary.org.

About Jen McCormack

Jen McCormack is the director of the Nashua Public Library. Previously she was director of the Tewksbury (Mass.) Public Library and assistant director and reference librarian at the Amesbury (Mass.) Public Library. She studied history at UNH and earned her master's in library and information science from Simmons College.

That’s my kind of history

Carol Luers EymanMy big rebellion in high school was refusing to study for a couple of Mrs. Carter’s American History quizzes and getting D’s on both of them.

Every history course I sat through was focused on war, which left me yawning. I never even took history in college.

But after I finished school, I found a branch of history that left me fascinated.

It’s the social and cultural history that Bill Bryson brings to life in At Home: A Short History of Private Life,  full of fun facts like this one: Back when only the wealthy could afford sugar and toothpaste didn’t exist, aristocrat-wannabes would blacken their teeth so people would think a diet of sweets had made them rot.

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty is available from the library in hardcover, large print, audiobook on CD, and downloadable audiobook.

That’s the history I love, and that’s the history that’s makes me a fan of historical novels like The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty.

It’s the story of Cora Carlisle, who is sent from her New York City orphanage to the Midwest on an orphan train. As a teenager, she is married off to a prosperous Topeka attorney, to prop up a façade of propriety that leaves her cruelly deceived but saves her husband’s reputation and livelihood.

Despite her uncomfortable living situation, Cora does bear children, twin boys. Most of the book takes place in the summer of 1922, when they are teenagers and out of town for a few months. Finding herself idle, Cora agrees to chaperone an avant-garde 15-year-old girl on her travels to New York to attend dance school. That 15-year-old is Louise Brooks, who in real life starred in 17 silent films and 8 talkies.

Louise Brooks

Louise Brooks with bobbed hair. By …trialsanderrors (Louise Brooks by Bain News Service, ca. 1928) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Louise Brooks helped popularize the bob–the short, blunt haircut with bangs that was not at all respectable in the early 1900s. In The Chaperone, a friend of Cora’s talks about how employers won’t even hire girls with bobs.

Reading about Louise Brooks’ haircut and clothing brought to mind scenes from Downton Abbey, whose recent season also took place in the early 1920s. And then I realized that Cora, not a name you hear often today, is Lady Grantham’s first name too. And that got me doing some research where I found out that Cora was a top-20 name in the 1880s . . . about the time our two Coras would have been born.

So what The Chaperone has to recommend it is not just an intriguing plot and convincing characters but its recreation of bygone society that motivated a history dropout like me to do my own research–something I never did voluntarily in Mrs. Carter’s 11th-grade classroom.

About Carol Luers Eyman

Carol Luers Eyman is the outreach and community services coordinator at the Nashua Public Library. After graduating from Kirkland College, she earned a master’s of education and a certificate in technical communication from the University of Massachusetts.

Bergman for Breakfast (Part 3 of 3)

Loren RossonIn the previous two posts I rolled out a countdown of my favorite Ingmar Bergman films, and now it’s time for the crown jewels.

But before that, a quote from Stanley Kubrick. As a young filmmaker he wrote to Bergman:

“Your vision of life has moved me deeply, much more deeply than I have ever been moved by any films. I believe you are the greatest film-maker at work today. Beyond that, allow me to say you are unsurpassed by anyone in the creation of mood and atmosphere, the subtlety of performance, the avoidance of the obvious, the truthfulness and completeness of characterization. To this one must also add everything else that goes into the making of a film.”

This, from the man who would become another film-making legend.

5. Shame. 1968. You will emerge from Shame a different person. It shows the personal cost of war, and without any political axe to grind, by focusing on a simple married couple at every step. We share their intimacies, then their hopelessness when they’re uprooted from home, falsely accused of bad allegiances, then freed on the condition that Eva performs favors for a government official. Things escalate to the point of such humiliation that Jan, clearly a pacifist by nature, snaps and becomes a moral monster. The exodus into a sea of corpses haunts me to this day. Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory showed us the politics of war, and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line looked at war from a cosmic perspective; but Bergman’s Shame is all the close-up intimacy.

4. Hour of the Wolf. 1968. Known for being Bergman’s only horror film. Like Shame (which was released the same year), it involves the actors Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullman as a married couple (Johan and Alma) on an island, with Johan’s psyche crumbling under extreme pressure, only this time the pressure is interior rather than exterior. It’s a film about inner demons, personal alienation, homosexual guilt, necrophilia, and the intensified blurring of reality and fantasy. We’re never sure if we’re seeing Johan’s demons, or those shared by Johan and Alma together, or some combination with reality. The theme of contagious insanity is like something out of David Lynch, who not surprisingly has said that Hour of the Wolf is his favorite Bergman film. So if you’re a Lynch fan you’ll love this one. In other words: not for those with delicate sensibilities.

3. Fanny and Alexander. 1982. This masterpiece is diminished by accolades. It has to be experienced to feel the magic, and despite the three-hour length (or even five-hour, if you see the extended version), you won’t want it to end. It’s a Dickens-like wonder, populated by ghosts and magical surrealism, the stuff of rare epic, weaved around a boy’s imagination that helps him deal with the death of his father and an abusive new one. There is the wild Christmas party of the first part, the tyranny and bloody lashings of the second, the dazzling dream-flight of the third. What stands out most is the optimistic ending, unique for Bergman. It was intended to be his last film, and I imagine him wanting to leave something more uplifting in his legacy. Fanny and Alexander is pure enchantment, pure storytelling, and its triumphant conclusion is richly earned.

2. The Seventh Seal. 1957. Bergman’s most famous film is rewarding on every level. It sounds a bit boring when described (a knight plays chess with Death), but it’s the knight’s journey around the game’s intervals, through a land struck by plague and religious fanaticism, and his attempts to penetrate God’s mysteries, that drive the story. There’s so much entertainment here–bar brawls, apocalyptic tirades, insult contests, self-mutilation, and a witch-burning to top it off–that the theological side helpings make it one of the most balanced art-house films I know. It’s an ambitious work that somehow, almost effortlessly it seems, tackles death, existential horror, and spiritual uncertainty all at once. And if there’s no rosy afterlife awaiting us, then at least Bergman allows us to enjoy some comforts, and through a great cast of characters, before we pass on.

1. Cries and Whispers. 1973. It says plenty about me, I suppose, that this is my #1 choice. It’s a horrifying look at pain, bleak by even Bergman’s standards, about a woman dying of cancer attended to by her dysfunctional sisters. The hurt on display is relentless, with facial contortions, gasps, and screams punctuating every other frame. The drama is the world of women, where men are gluttonous oafs and blind to their wives’ contempt, though it’s not simple male-bashing. These women have complex relationships with each other, and bruise each other with emotional pain that matches the physical assault of Agnes’ cancer. The late Roger Ebert compared this film to The Exorcist, which may seem a strange analogy, but each, in a similar way, left me terrified to exist as a human being. For that reason alone, it’s my favorite Bergman film.

Further reading: Carson Lund’s rankings of Bergman. Carson used to work in our Music/Art/Media department and is now a professional filmmaker.

About Loren Rosson

Loren Rosson heads up the circulation department at the Nashua Public Library. He's worked at the library since graduating from Lewis and Clark College, with the exception of the two years he spent in Lesotho with the Peace Corps, teaching high school.

Bergman for Breakfast (Part 2 of 3)

Loren RossonIn my previous post I started a countdown of my favorite Ingmar Bergman films, and today it rolls on.

But before I continue, here’s a wonderful quote from Time, which paid tribute when Bergman died in 2007.

“Bergman was a surgeon who operated on himself. He cut into his own fears, analyzed his failings, perhaps sought forgiveness through art. His films seemed like primal screams, picking at the scabs of his psyche. They spoke not just to the self-absorption of the therapy generation, but to the human quest to discover the worst and the strongest about ourselves, to make that journey into the darkness with no guide but our need to know.”

10. The Virgin Spring. 1960. The same year Hitchcock gave us the first slasher with Psycho, Bergman gave us rape revenge. But unlike the modern formula that often glorifies retribution, The Virgin Spring puts the screws to it. The father’s revenge is portrayed as ugly and self-righteous, and this is what keeps this classic above American copycats like The Last House on the Left. It refuses to allow us moral holidays. The father is almost an anti-Charles Bronson, atoning for his revenge by dedicating a holy shrine on the spot his daughter was killed. The film’s enduring power matches Psycho’s, and of course both Hitchcock and Bergman have been abused in imitations, spin-offs, and remakes of their artistry. Revenge thrillers have become cliche, but The Virgin Spring retains a fresh raw power after five decades.

9. The Magician. 1958. A film based on the wisdom that “deception is so common that he who tells the truth as a rule is the greatest liar” is an eye-catcher from the start. All things considered, I don’t think The Magician intends the often-supposed clash between science and the supernatural, rather honesty and deception, and in this case neither reason nor superstition wins. For all his fraud, the magician doesn’t come off too badly, and he’s even given the stamp of royal approval at the end. The film suggests that humanity needs its self-deceptions in order to stay healthy. Besides that, it’s a great showcasing of some of the most colorful characters in any of Bergman’s films, and I think it’s probably his most underrated.

8. Persona. 1966. Many consider this Bergman’s ultimate masterpiece, and it’s certainly been analyzed to death. I think its real significance lies in what it represents at a critical turning point in Bergman’s career. Persona was forged in the fires of his mental breakdown, and from here on out his strategies changed, especially in the way he began treating bisexuality seriously. The pre-1966 films typically resigned heterosexual couples to bleak endings; now he felt free to engineer the complete destruction of these relationships (as in Shame and Hour of the Wolf, covered in tomorrow’s post) and veer off into homoeroticism. In the case of Persona, the two women go beyond intimacy so that they merge metaphysically, signaled in the famous shot where the halves of their faces are combined. Alma craves Elizabeth’s identity as much as her affection, and I think that’s what makes Persona the legendary experiment it is.

7. Sawdust and Tinsel. 1953. Here Bergman pours his personal guilt, romantic betrayals, and artistic dissatisfaction into a cruel parable. It’s such a nasty piece of work, and so refreshingly honest, that the autobiography has been obvious to many critics. The themes are sexual power and degradation, centered around the characters of Albert and Anne–perhaps my favorite couple in cinematic history–who hurt each other, despise each other, cheat on each other, yet love each other as they’re unable to escape a harsh career. Their world of the circus (sawdust) is humiliating like that of the theater (tinsel), and in this film, those worlds brutally collide. Like The Magician it’s been underrated, though seems to have undergone something of a reassessment in recent years. I catch new and hidden meanings each time I see it.

6. The Silence. 1963. The third part of the faith trilogy suggests that there’s no solution to the riddle of God’s existence, and yet the search for a solution remains important. The setting is a foreign country that gets few visitors, and where tanks roll down the streets ready to fire at a moment’s notice. The hotel is something out of a paranoid dream state, with the hyperfriendly old porter and the room of circus dwarves, all of whom speak gibberish. The theme of noncommunication pervades on every level, carrying “silence” to its symbolic extreme. The visiting sisters resent each other and retreat into their own silences or dysfunctions: sexual promiscuity (Anna) and alcoholism (Ester). By contrast, the boy Johann almost represents an angelic version of humanity, since he can interact with all of the hotel’s grotesqueries with delightful naivete, even despite the language barriers. Of the faith trilogy (see #12 and #11 in yesterday’s post), this final part is the most unnerving, and a true work of art.

Next up: Numbers 5-1.

About Loren Rosson

Loren Rosson heads up the circulation department at the Nashua Public Library. He's worked at the library since graduating from Lewis and Clark College, with the exception of the two years he spent in Lesotho with the Peace Corps, teaching high school.

Bergman for Breakfast (Part 1 of 3)

Loren RossonDo you enjoy being depressed?

Do you prefer tragedy over levity?

Do you like artistic films that deal with the dark and embarrassing aspects of human nature that many of us would rather avoid?

If you answer yes to any of these, then chances are you’ll like the films of Ingmar Bergman. If you answer yes to all three, you’ll positively adore them.

Bergman hit an age where he couldn’t even watch his own films anymore because he found them so depressing. Sickness, eroticism, madness, and death were his forte, and he was bleak by even some of today’s standards. But he analyzed human failings better than anyone, and spoke to the need to better ourselves through those failings. He had a sense of humor too, and used it at the right moments.

Here are my personal Bergman favorites, fifteen of them, all of which are in the library’s DVD collection. Over the course of three posts this week I’ll count them down in groups of five, saving the best for last.

If you get your day started with a Bergman film, everything is downhill from there. Bergman for breakfast!

15. Wild Strawberries. 1957. This is a popular Bergman film though not one of my top choices. It’s probably because I’m so hopeless that I watch Bergman to get thoroughly depressed, and Wild Strawberries has cushions of enough optimism to qualify as “comfort Bergman.” It’s about an elderly professor who reflects on his past and how he’s grown cold to those around him. The film has a gorgeous aesthetic, especially in the shots of Isak’s premonitions, daydreams, and nightmares–the empty streets with faceless clocks is a famous scene. So is the birthday-party flashback, involving whites so strong they’re staggering (if there was ever a time white could be colorful, the birthday party scene is it). If you’re not into super-depressing cinema but want to see at least one Bergman film, this is probably the one for you.

14. The Passion of Anna. 1969. I have a complicated relationship with The Passion of Anna. On first viewing I didn’t much care for it. It felt overly artistic and experimental, and it even has interviews with the actors interrupting the film at various points. Character narrations and voice-overs are acceptable techniques, but not the equivalent of modern DVD extras mixed throughout the actual story. But I admit that Anna has grown on me. If you can make yourself forget about other Bergman films, the themes of which this one seems to copy, it stands as an innovative, unflinching look at the pain and meaninglessness of life, around a weird plot of an animal serial killer and the arrest and trauma of an innocent man.

13. Summer with Monika. 1953. This one is famous for two shots. First is Harriet Andersson’s soft-porn sunbathing scene, which got heavily reedited in America, under the sensational retitle of Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl! The second is her phallic drag on a cigarette as she stares out at the camera–through the camera, it seems, right at us–daring us to judge her selfishness and infidelities. It’s that tale of youthful escapism everyone has fantasized about at some point: two lovers abandon their jobs and families, and run away in a motorboat to spend weeks on an isolated beach. They dream the dreams of children, of a blissful married life ahead of them . . . and then return to the cold reality of poverty, adultery, and unwanted babies. It may not be especially profound as Bergman films go, but it remains a favorite among Bergman fans for good reason.

12. Through a Glass Darkly. 1961. This was my first Bergman film and will always be special for that reason alone. The isolated island setting and small cast of four makes for an intense character study, and it doesn’t hurt that the excellent Harriet Andersson takes the lead as a schizophrenic affecting her family in complex ways. The theme of spiritual doubt is the undercurrent, always subordinate to the personal relationships, the most fascinating of which is the incestuous one between Karin and her brother Minus. The ending has the father holding out desperate hope for a loving God, in contrast to the film’s concept of God as a spider–one of the most sinister metaphors for God I’ve ever come across. This is the first part of the faith trilogy (see also #11 below, and #6 in my next post), and the most intimate.

11. Winter Light. 1962. The second part of the faith trilogy holds God under even more scrutiny. It does this through the spiritual struggle of a priest, and his relationship with a woman who loves him, but whom he can barely tolerate under his contempt. It hurts to watch her expressions when he explains how much he despises her–fed up with her “loving care, clumsy hands, rashes, and frostbitten cheeks”, among other things that don’t bear mentioning in polite company. The story is essentially about a pastor so furious at God’s silence, that he breaks his own silence toward the kindest woman with an avalanche of brutality that makes the Almighty’s treatment of Job in the Bible seem benign. It addresses the theological dilemma that has been around for centuries: is there an all-loving God, and if so, where is he?

Next up: Numbers 10-6.

About Loren Rosson

Loren Rosson heads up the circulation department at the Nashua Public Library. He's worked at the library since graduating from Lewis and Clark College, with the exception of the two years he spent in Lesotho with the Peace Corps, teaching high school.

Intrigue Infects the Iditarod

The Boy in the Snow

“The Boy in the Snow” is available from the library in hardcover and downloadable audio.

Jen McCormackEdie and Bonehead make a great couple.

They both love dogsled racing and eat a diet of mostly meat and fish, the rarer the better.

In M.J. McGrath’s novel The Boy in the Snow these two have flown south from their home on Ellesmere Island to Anchorage, Alaska, for the Iditarod, Bonehead to pull a sled and Edie to support the team.

While waiting for the race to start Edie makes a gruesome discovery that has special meaning to her in light of her own history. Instead of following the race she ends up entwined in a murder investigation involving Russian exiles known as the “Old Believers.”

Trapped on the ice
Many powerful people have a lot to hide in this story and some very strong motivations to do so, which gets Edie and her friend Derek into some treacherous situations. The author does a masterful job of describing the conditions out on the ice at one of the race stops and just what it looks and feels like to be trapped there with no coat or gloves or any hope of rescue.

And while this is not meant to be a funny novel the scenes where Edie teaches herself to drive had me in stitches. She is tiny, but determined and generally fearless.

Make it a cold one
Like many of the mysteries I read I chose this book because of the setting. Alaska is a place I’ve never visited, and arctic locales are oddly interesting to me. I like to read about how humans have adapted to the extreme conditions and how their lives are different than mine as a result.

If you too like mysteries set in frozen locations try The Explorer’s Code by Kitty Pilgrim; if tenacious female characters are your favorites check out any of Nevada Barr’s novels featuring Anna Pigeon.

Need more mysteries? Comment below or send me an email at jennifer.hinderer@nashualibrary.org.

About Jen McCormack

Jen McCormack is the director of the Nashua Public Library. Previously she was director of the Tewksbury (Mass.) Public Library and assistant director and reference librarian at the Amesbury (Mass.) Public Library. She studied history at UNH and earned her master's in library and information science from Simmons College.

Dead before we knew him

Sophie SmithDespite current sentiment toward the federal government, I’ve always been a fan of the institution of the President of the United States.

So many different people have given the role so many different meanings. Some presidents are beloved, some are hated; all are unique men with complicated stories. And some of these intriguing stories are hardly known.

Destiny of the Republic

“Destiny of the Republic” by Candice Millard is available at the library in hardcover.

An unnecessary death
Unlike Washington, Lincoln, or Kennedy, James Garfield always seems to end up on the list of the forgotten. After four months as president he was shot, and for the next two and a half months he was a living cadaver, the subject of a tragic scientific experiment.

The shooting, though violent and horrible, did not kill him.

That dubious honor was left to his doctors.

Candice Millard, in Destiny of the Republic, explores the political intrigue and medical mayhem of Garfield’s assassination. Fans of Devil in the White City or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks will appreciate that this story looks at both the unbelievable-but-true history of our country and very real scientific discovery.

Desperate measures
Did you know that Alexander Graham Bell spent the time between the shooting and Garfield’s death desperately trying to invent the metal detector–to find the bullet? Did you know that Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert, on track to become the only man present at three presidential assassinations, held Garfield as he nearly bled to death? Did you know that the first air conditioner may have been invented as doctors tried to keep Garfield’s body cool as he lay dying in the White House during the summer of 1881?

To me, the most fascinating part of the book is the most simple. That rule we all learned at a very young age—Wash Your Hands!—is as essential to saving a life as any surgical tool or medication. James Garfield died as a result of unclean fingers poked into the bullet hole in his side. He was, in fact, overtreated by the multiple doctors hovering around him.

And here comes the sad truth: if he had not been president, had he not been beloved by his countrymen (minus Charles Guiteau, his shooter), his doctors would have left the bullet in and let him heal, and he very likely would have lived.

Fortunately we now have this poignant and page-turning book, ensuring that James Garfield will no longer be one of those presidents you just can’t remember when you play Sporcle.

About Sophie Smith

Sophie Smith is the supervisor of teen services at the Nashua Public Library and can also frequently be found at the reference desk. As a history and Spanish major at Kenyon College she spent a year in Salamanca, Spain. She earned her master's in library and information science from Simmons College.