God in the Bath: Relaxing in the
everywhere presence of God

God in the Bath: Relaxing in the everywhere presence of God by Stephen Mitchell, O Books (Winchester).2006. Ł9.99. 95 pages. ISBN 1905047657

Reviewed by Alison McRobb. Alison teaches theology and English Language and is a Principal Examiner in Hinduism for Cambridge International Examinations. She was last year's Chair of SoF Trustees

This book took effect instantly. By page 6 I had run the bath and for the next seven chapters or so was cosseted in the elegant bubbles of Neal’s Yard Foaming Seaweed and Arnica (pretty blue bottle, soothing fragrance). On this I’m the converted: the bath is definitely the place where the best philosophy is done.

I’m not sure the conceit works effectively throughout, however – though the more accurate ‘God’s a Bath’ or ‘In God We Bath’ would hardly have been acceptable titles. No matter – even Sea of Faithers tire at times of thalasso-talk. How deeply you engage with this author’s thesis will depend on where you’re coming from, as they say, and perhaps how you see the book being used. Most strikingly it appears as a pastoral epistle, from a priest who knows his flock. The argument is presented as ‘shocking’ and ‘revolutionary’, which no doubt it will be for some. But the pastor’s voice comes, with appropriate authority and humour, from inside the fold. The ‘we’ is regularly the membership, the body of the Christian Church. Groups of thinkers and seekers within that body will find plenty of discussion material, chapter by chapter, though the book has no pretensions to being a systematic manual for questioners – for that I’d direct them to Tony Windross, Doc.Demythol.

Certainly we, all of us, should rejoice that anyone is taking the trouble to write thoughtfully about ‘faith’ and ‘God’ and ‘life’, even if a different congregation might ask, ‘What’s new?’ And there is no doubt that Stephen Mitchell knows his philosophy – heavy topics such as the Argument from Design are dealt with in accessible language. He also knows and loves his Bible, from which the quotations are usually short and appropriate (though he misses what’s surely the pithiest NT comment on ‘tough luck’: Luke 13 vv 1-5).

The problem for some Sea of Faith readers, however, and others who have long left worries about ‘orthodoxy’ behind, will be a deep unease that in all this enjoyable celebration which they can share, there is a concept of God which they cannot. Readers who thought they were on the Via Negativa might find themselves unwittingly bumping along another highway.

We all know that the quickest way to kill the bath-bubbles is to introduce a bar of soap, and here it’s the word ‘mystery’, slippery in the extreme. Teachers of theology and clerics who are ‘stewards of the mysteries’ will have instant sympathy: traditionally in any tight place they’ve invoked a magnum mysterium ex machina. Yet if this book’s recipe for faith and life is ‘the answer’, what can ‘mystery’ possibly mean? And do we need it? The delightful and salutary quotations from St Augustine seem to say No!

The inability to let go shows up perhaps in the author’s, and the book’s, genuine attachment to devotion, here devotion in the Christian tradition. (It is a pity that the shorthand term ‘Christian God’ is used, liable as it is to serious misinterpretation.) Yet the whole theme of the book is that there can be religion, and that devotion can be a part of life, as can art and music, without any of the ‘believing in’ problems which have been so effectively soothed away. The chapters on ‘Imagination’ and ‘Death’ stand confidently on their own without recourse to ‘mystery’, so in fact the whole book could, if that were not a step too far out of the charmed circle of ‘orthodoxy’.

The book is attractively presented, in print large enough to indulge those who find steamed-up spectacles a problem for bath-time reading. We expect US spelling styles now, but perhaps not ‘thunder and lightening’ (sic, twice). Niggles are few, however: Richard Eyre becomes Roger on the next page, but is restored in the Notes, which are helpful and clear.

As a Lent Group book, then, this has everything going for it. Whether ‘relaxing in the everywhere presence of God’ (the sub-title) will please readers whose theology goes rather for a rigorous carbolic scrub remains to be seen.