This review was made possible by a complimentary copy of the book from InterVarsity Press.
The Mystery of the Cross by Judith Couchman caught my attention by a beautiful, illuminated manuscript-type cover and the promise of exploration of images of the Cross to enhance devotional time. Here's the book trailer:
Having reviewed several books that I was expecting to be great, but did not meet that expectation at all, I went into this book expecting it to disappoint me.
However, this book blew my expectations out of the water. First of all, the format is great. I appreciate that each chapter is quite short, making it easy to read a section when one has just a few minutes (like I usually do) rather than long periods of time to sit and really read deeply. This makes it particularly useful as devotional tool.
I also appreciated that each chapter included an image of the cross considered in that chapter. It helps to really understand what Couchman is describing. I also like that the images were hand-drawn, adding to the human dimension of the history of these images, making them seem more devotionally-focused than an aim for perfection.
The content, though, is where this book really shines. My undergraduate degree was in Religious Studies, particularly focused on early church history and hagiographies (the lives of the saints). Therefore, I really enjoy understanding the rich history behind images, stories, and words that make up our current faith. I find that this really helps me appreciate our tools for worship in a much deeper way.
Couchman does precisely this in each chapter. However, it's not boring or dry. She beautifully summarizes the history of an image and how and why it was used. She does so in an effectively concise way (something I cannot do :) ). This creates a nice balance between understanding the history while making each chapter short enough for effective devotion.
She then ends each chapter with a more devotional reflection. Some images may have a controversial history that may make some people not want to use them in devotion or that may challenge some people's faith. However, Couchman reframes the story in a way that does not negate the controversy, but rather uses it to enhance the mystical nature of Christian faith and the cross.
With these elements, Couchman balances both a cognitive, academic approach with an affective, devotional heart. Readers of my blog know that I look for ways to balance the two, as both are critically important for our lives. It's hard to do using all the spiritual formation resources we have. It's even harder to find in a single resource like this book. I am impressed by it and plan to continue to use it to enrich my own personal devotion. Few books truly have aided my devotion as much as this one has, especially recently.
As you can see, I strongly endorse this book. If you pick it up (and it's 30% off right now at IVP), I do suggest going into it with lower expectations. We all know how if we go into something with expectations too high, we are bound to be disappointed. This is one book I would not want to experience less because of my expectations.