For those who haven’t been following, Earlier this week, Janet, mum of Harry, wrote to her local vicar about the effects on Harry of a recent book, Under construction, by Neil O Boyle, that was being read. A few days later, after seeking a copy of the book and reading it, the local vicar in our mini-series, replies:
I really appreciated receiving your letter about how your son Harry has enjoyed the book ‘Under construction’ by Neil O Boyle. As a result of your recommendation I bought a copy, well, actually, I didn’t, I was talking to our youth leaders about it, and one of them got a free copy at a national youth conference a few months back, and like any good youthworker they hadn’t read it, and were only happy to lend it to me. So in a quiet moment between Christmas and new year, I gave it a read, from cover to cover.
Im afraid I cant share your sense of positivity about it, even though I have a feeling you were being slightly sardonic in your letter. I cant even begin to answer some of the questions you asked, because, even with an MA in Theology, I dont understand what the book is going on about half the time. I can see where you found the drawings and notes sections helpful in delving into the inner most mind thoughts of Harry (and his technical drawing skills), but a read of the text in detail caused me some consternation. I wont be giving this book back to the youth leaders, I really dont want anyone else to read it.
I have summarised my concerns, having read the whole book as follows:
The least of my concerns is that I don’t know who it is written for. It recounts sexual assault, rape, and teen suicide, and accompanies it with join the dots activities- is it even for boys like Harry? On one hand it describes abortions in detail , later in the bedroom chapter the author helpfully describes sex as being for ‘making babies’ – the kind of insight needed for 8 year olds. And the dot to dots?
Regarding Biblical or theological reflection – the bible itself is rewritten to suit the metaphor (not just re interpreted). God is a mysterious wandering presence who moves around a metaphorical house, existing in the study, and without asking for permission laying down new floorboards, and then being left in the coridoor – at times it just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. God isn’t like that, God is love, and to be followed , not to worry about if he’s stalking you under the floorboards or checking out what seedy activities you’ve been doing, and he really isn’t into dry rot.
All the stories about sex are told are about shame and are from a girls point of view, boys don’t have shameful sex in this book, and there is no referenced to counselling or therapy and emotions that may be triggered in the reader. Im so glad Harry didn’t react here too much, but imagine if he’d experienced abuse himself?
If young people take the book seriously and write down their responses, this book becomes a diary of shame, judgement and guilt – and really can’t be passed around the youth group. Or left on a bookshelf in the family home. Not once does it ask a young person to write down the gifts or abilities they think God has given them.
There are no reference to any research into the effects of social media, mental health (social media is blamed) on one occasion it takes the complex case of the Bulgar Killers and uses it to make a simple case that video games are harmful and the images stay in the mind forever, guilting video game use to child killing. This is what happened to Harry isn’t it? He felt guilty about giving up paying grand theft auto – not because he was making a positive choice – but felt shame and guilt.
So Janet, Im really thankful that you’ve shared with me about this book, I have some strong concerns, and quite how it can be recommended for young people, in 21st Century Britain, and by a youth organisation that is seeking to be relevant, that is trying to encourage young people into faith, beats me. Its a faith I really dont recognise in this book, maybe its American evangelicalism, that’s what it feels like, and reminds me of Moral Therapeutic Deism which we talked about when I was at college, though this feels a weird variation, that maintains the moral, but is barely therapeutic, more traumatic, and is more DIY SOS than Deism.
Im glad that you didn’t send your letter to our new curate, she’s female. I think she’s likely to explode reading this book, and she’s barely a feminist. But as a male im deeply troubled, and you know how calm I have to be in difficult situations.
You know that I am not responsible for the book, but as someone who is obviously involved in the church and the christian faith, I feel I need to apologise for the damage its already caused and even what it might do. Directly to Harry, I apologise for the view this book it portrays of guilt and shame, Harry seems already full of shame about his body, there body a good loving God gave him, he shouldn’t feel this way. I apologise for how harry might view women, in this book they are bullied or shamed for sex acts, there are far more beautiful and purposeful and contributors in society than this, and any damage to the relationship with his sister. I apologise for the way Harry might view God, the view of a loving Father, creator, generous and love is very difficult to find, and so Im sorry. Im sorry that Harry might feel that he has to be perfect to have faith, to have sorted himself out before he can contribute in the church: Janet – your Harry is an amazing boy, loved and precious and the youth leaders adore him, we would love him to use all his amazing gifts, personality and creativity – and he doesnt need to undergo misguided deep introspection before this can happen – we love Harry for who he is.
My advice for Harry – is to read the actual bible- and fall in love with the beautiful man that is Jesus. Look at his words, his actions, and find him wondrous, mysterious and dynamic – and see how he healed the hurting and involved women, and then loved so much, and saw the world with compassion – that’s the God of the bible, and if Harry follows this example and seeks goodness, peace and love – then you will end up being so proud of your son even more. Thats the God I try and preach of, and the one that will truly transform history. Once Harry realises he is part of this great big adventure and wonder, to heal, minister and be part of a glorious kingdom of love, peace and hope – then im sure this will be transformative.
And, if Harry want to read a book about growing up, then might I suggest ‘The Man You’re meant to be, by Martin Saunders‘ – its not perfect, but, it would treat Harry like a grown up, and written like a conversation with a slightly wise friend in a cafe. Theres no shame attached here, but a self effacing and humorous look at growing up, and from a man poses the difficult questions about objectifying women, rather than shaming them for the sex acts that abusive men have performed on them.
So, Janet, thank you, I hope this response has been helpful to you, I strongly recommend you think twice about Harry reading the book all the way through, because even on the last page there’s a suggestion to let Jesus have an ‘all access pass to Harrys life’ as if Jesus is a monthly vue cinema ticket. Please gently ask Harry to stop reading it, and if he wants to talk about it, id be happy too.
Yours in love,