Since the book “Surprised By Christ” is an intensely personal account, I’ll start my review on a personal level, and disclose that I am an Orthodox Christian convert from Roman Catholicism, into which I was baptized and raised from infancy. Because of this, I have always felt somewhat handicapped at understanding both Judaism and the Old Testament. I’m very aware that I can only view either through the lens of the Western Christianity I’ve inherited. I don’t even know the right questions to ask. I was so attracted to Judaism that in my 20s I nearly converted, myself, and that journey caused me to approach Christianity differently. Christianity views itself as a descendant from Judaism, but as modern Christians, in a culture that has claimed Christianity for so long, how much do we really understand about the relationship between our faith (Christianity) and its mother faith, Judaism? (Not much, as it turns out, which is why this book is so illuminating.)
This is what I appreciated so much about Fr James Bernstein’s approach to describing his transformation from a cradle Orthodox Jew into, ultimately, an Orthodox Christian priest (via a long trek through Evangelical protestantism). Recounted in first-person autobiography, throughout the story he shares the assumptions he inherited as an Orthodox Jew and the questions they generated as he approached Christianity. It’s extremely revealing to hear his reactions as he learns about his new faith after converting. For instance, much of Western Christian salvation theology finds its basis in the idea of sacrifice, which we assume directly descends from Old Testament concepts of sacrifice. But do we have the remotest understanding of what sacrifice meant to an Old Testament-era Jew? Modern Jews have retained a sense of the significance – modern Christians clearly have not. And yet, it’s integral to our understanding of our life in Christ and the identity of Christ, Himself. This is just one example in which Fr James brilliantly clarifies Christian theology through the light of his Jewish background.
Do not, however, assume that this book is any kind of dry theological treatise. Important as the concepts presented are (and richly supported through scriptural references and quotes from early Christian fathers), listening to the audiobook was more like sitting down to coffee in the company of a friend, and hearing a long, lovely and fascinating story. Fr James artfully weaves together his personal thoughts and questions, experiences of spiritual growth, and encounters with significant history (a front-row seat in Israel’s 6-Day War, a narrow escape from Vietnam conscription, participation in the lively Berkeley culture of the 60s and 70s). The author reads the book at a leisurely pace, which enriches the story and also makes it easier to follow when he delves into rich theology and scripture.
This book is so multi-layered it will bear repeated listening. I am very grateful to Fr James Bernstein for having written it, because it presented answers to questions I didn’t know I had, but that prove critical to my understanding of my faith. If you are already a Christian, this book will enrich your understanding of Christianity in unexpected ways: be prepared to let go of what you think you know. And if you aren’t a Christian, enjoy a great story that will still enlighten you about parts of our cultural history that are, in general, meagerly understood. Fr James Bernstein brings an invaluable voice to the conversation of culture, history and faith.
(Full disclosure: I was provided a copy of the audiobook in exchange for reviewing.)