"I highly recommend Surprised by Christ. It is not only an enjoyable read, but it is also a faith-affirming one"
Fr A James Bernstein’s book entitled Surprised by Christ: My Journey from Judaism to Orthodox Christianity is a magnificent book.
As is known, the young Arnold Bernstein came to Christ as a teenager, much to the chagrin of his parents. (In the shadow of the Holocaust, his father became disillusioned with theism and left the rabbinate.) Later, as a young man, he was associated with the Jews for Jesus movement begun by Moishe Rosen. In essence, he was living in the Protestant, non-denominational milieu of the “high sixties” (as I term the years 1968-1973). It was there that he met his lovely wife Bonnie and in the beautiful setting of Northern California, they began their family.
Something, however, was not quite right. I imagine it was the tug of his culture that caused unease in him. Like many in the “Jesus Movement”, he was drawn towards a more historical Christianity. Indeed, he even says as much. Like those fellow-travelers in what would soon become the Evangelical Orthodox Church (EOC), he began to question many of the presuppositions of the entire Protestant ethos.
Bernstein, to his credit, fleshes out the various milestones in his life’s journey to the Orthodox priesthood in ways that were quite satisfying to me as a reader. And also as an Orthodox Christian, one who has wrestled with his own faith at times. For this, I’m grateful as it was his theological tangents which solidified the Orthodox phronema and theology. And I am especially grateful that he does so in an easy-to-read, intelligent writing style. One does not need to be a seminary graduate to understand the Orthodox doctrines of grace, mercy, sin and even eschatology, as Bernstein explicates them.
I could stop there but that would be cheap of me. Read on its own terms, it is an amazingly easy project but it is more than autobiographical, at least in my estimation. While I very much enjoyed the autobiographical elements (especially the scenes of Queens from his early childhood), I was struck by how the author wove theology into this mix. Indeed, by the middle sections of the book, the theology (almost) overtakes the biography. More accurately, it augments the autobiography, giving it texture and meaning.
And it should; if we are open to the light of Christ. Only then we can see Him in all things. In the mundane, as well as magnificent. If we are open to it, we can even discern His presence at crucial points in our lives where we are not always seeing clearly. Fr James has captured all this brilliantly.
Having said that, Bernstein’s autobiographical writing style reminded me of some of the best of the ethnic American writers I remember from youth, men like William Saroyan, Philip Roth, and Harry Mark Petrakis. Reading his prose, I could almost taste the candies his father sold in his store in Queens, hear the trains rumbling along the tracks nearby, and taste the flavors of the Hasidic neighborhood in the Old City of Jerusalem where his father was born and where he was trained to be a rabbi. To me, this is important because Christianity is a life lived, not a series of dry, Calvinistic propositions. And life can be messy (it always is). But even here, Christ is found. And Fr James certainly found Christ throughout the various stages of his life, including within his own culture, especially within his own culture.
As an ethnic Orthodox from the cradle, this was a profound insight. It made me take stock of my own upbringing and made me appreciate the sacrifices of the simple Greek peasants who made their way to America, bringing what they could of their religion with them so that I might benefit as their legacy. I find myself reminiscing about the pietism that my mother instilled in us, customs that gave meaning to our everyday lives. Especially as we prepared for Sunday: the proper illumination of the vigil light in our home altar, lighting the hand-held censer and saying the prayers we were instructed to say as we censed the house. It also made me think of the Greece of my youth when Orthodox piety imbued the very air that was breathed.
That’s all gone now. But that’s a story for another day.
In the past, I have called this book an excellent summa, realizing of course that this is a biography and not a theological treatise. An overstatement if you will. In retrospect, I have no problem with appending that description to this autobiographical book.
Indeed, it was his theological expositions that caused me to take stock of what he wrote regarding Orthodox theology. Ordinarily, a book this well-written could be finished in two or three sittings (it’s 330 pages). However, I often found myself putting it down after five pages and reading some of the more insightful points. After a while, I had to take my yellow Sharpie and underline several key sentences. This made what should have been a weekend’s literary excursion into a month-long educational undertaking. As an Orthodox Christian, I could do no other. In fact, I would do so again.
After all, as Orthodox Christians, we are enjoined to pray that our lives are to be occupied by spiritual pursuits and to avoid vain things. In that sense, I highly recommend Surprised by Christ. It is not only an enjoyable read, but it is also a faith-affirming one.
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