The God Box – Alex Sanchez

(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a TGB‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

If you know a teenage boy who is scared to accept that he is gay and who also goes to an evangelical/charismatic/fundamentalist church, then this book would be a great help to him in sorting out what the Bible actually says and about how God is not some sadistic monster who is going to send him to Hell.

Paul, who is really Pablo, is from Mexico but he desperately wants to fit in with the ‘jocks’ in his school. He has a girlfriend but this is really a best friend thing with no passion though it serves as a cover for his real feelings which, he is convinced, is ‘a passing phase’. A relative pointedly asks him is he really loves her because, if not, he will hurt her. He is hiding before the ‘no sex before marriage’ rule to avoid any physical contact with her apart from a dutiful peck in the cheek.

He feels very threatened when an out gay Mexican, Manuel, joins his class. He feels that if he befriends him, as the new boy wants, he will be seen as gay by association.

The ‘God box’ of the title is a receptacle into which he puts written prayers. All his prayers seem to have been answered in the affirmative except two: that his mother wouldn’t die (which she did when he was aged twelve) and that he wouldn’t turn out gay.

The school’s bible study group is dominated by fundamentalists: the boys play ‘proof text volleyball’. Speaking about Manuel, some of the girls argue that Jesus accepted everyone as they were, went out of this way to befriend the marginalised and was non-judgmental. The boys insist, however, that whilst Jesus accepted people, he expected them to change their sinful ways. The biggest argument happens when Manuel turns up and the leader decides to abandon the prepared topic, the Sermon on the Mount, and studies Sodom and Gomorrah instead. Manuel quickly counters the homophobia of the group leadership by asking some very troubling questions about the text, suggesting that its meaning is very different from the way it is interpreted by fundamentalists. Paul goes home and starts to look up cross references and discovers that other mentions of Sodom in the bible are all about inhospitality: nothing to do with homosexuality. This is all well and good but I don’t think that even an intelligent teenager would be able to deconstruct biblical interpretation as easily as that in one night or reckon that thee advice to consider historical and cultural context in its writings might also apply to issues of sexuality. For most, it takes a study of biblical criticism at university level or at least a good, plain book written by someone who has. (Paul wants to be a minister but I doubt that his sort of church would send him to a seminary that did such biblical criticism.) I know one student who did coursework on this topic at A’ level (Philosophy and Ethics) who was heavily reliant on the work of Daniel Helminiac (so it came as no surprise when the author cites this book in his epilogue.) but he was exceptional.

In fact, it feels like the Lambda Literary Award-winning author is writing such a book, to deconstruct the bible, and couching it in a story form. But it makes for a very ‘wooden’, didactic story at this point.

Manuel is also a little too clever for his age. Deconstructing the Sodom story by asking if ‘all the men of the city’ wanted to ‘know’ the angels, that must mean that all the men were gay. What about their wives?  And he cites the epistle to the Romans where all things are declared to be ‘clean’ as trumping Old Testament purity laws about sexuality.

There are some authentic touches – as someone who lost a parent during my childhood, I sympathise with Paul’s fear that he might lose his father too, now that his mother has died.

There is also a damning indictment of schooling. The headmaster thinks of a Gay-Straight-Alliance cub as immoral. Teachers ignore homophobic comments and even overtly homophobic bullying. Some reviewers have questioned the need for a gay-bashing incident in the novel but it serves to show the serious consequences or schools which ignore the need for a homophobic bullying policy.

The ex-gay movement is exposed for what it is. Its representative’s body language gives away his unhappiness, though I doubt that a seventeen-year-old like Paul would be as good at reading body language as the book suggests. The ex-gay suggests that Paul wouldn’t be beaten up if he gave his ‘life to the Lord.’ Didn’t do much for Jesus, didn’t it?

The pastor thinks he is doing a good job by referring Paul to that movement but lacks insight into people. Pastoring that starts with the bible and not with people as they actually are isn’t true pastoring. When he says that the new ‘club’ at the school is a challenge to Christianity, I thought, so it jolly well should be – to that sort of Christianity anyway.

There are some good phrases, including the best retort I have ever heard to ‘God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’: ‘Who made Steve then?’ There’s also the ridiculous bumper sticker: ‘The Bible says it I believe it. That settles it.’ Manuel has a good riposte to the ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ cliché: So it’s OK to be left-handed as long as you use your right hand. People talk about ‘walking away from homosexuality’ but can you walk away from yourself? Best of all: “Did Jesus ever say,” Manuel continued, “I have come so that you can live life in a box?’ Or did he say, ‘I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly’?”

The author shares other things with his characters apart from being Mexican, I suspect. How much of this book is semi-autobiographical? All this other books seem to have the same central theme: an out gay who threatens a closet case and a straight jock.

However, it is a moving read that will recapture, for many teenagers anxious about their religion and their sexuality, those strong self-doubts which they have grown out of.

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