Surprised by Christ: A Review

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.


  1. This is an excellent book and one I enjoyed reading very much. The biography-dogma-biography-dogma pattern I found to be quite interesting and Fr. James weaved everything together very well.

  2. Can  i obtain this book from Bulgaria??   
    Of course Fr Alexander Men the martyred priest in Russia, 1990,  was Jewish although baptised as a child.  
    When I have observed traditional Jewish worship I have always felt close. Inspite of all.  

  3. V. Rev. A. James Bernstein says

    George, thank you for giving the book such a favorable review. 
    I am truly humbled. Not only because you personally liked it but because there are so many other books that you could have chosen to review. Books that are FAR superior. Of them all you you chose to review – mine!!! My attitude when writing was – if it blesses only ONE person the effort is worth it. Now I find it was worth the effort as it blessed you. As well as others. Glory to God.
    I supplied a tiny seed of talent/faith, God grew and expanded it beyond expectation. It is now in 5 languages, English, Greek, Russian, Greek, Romanian, Greek, Serbian, Greek and God willing in Brazilian Portuguese.  It is also on Audible. Why did I list Greek so many times? Because I am astounded that GREEKS would publish a book written by an American raised as a New York Jew. Miracles happen. Glory to God. My minuscule life has been vindicated. Am accepted by TRULY devout Orthodox Christians of Greece! George, the most traditional, conservative anti-ecumenist monastics there are the ones who spear headed this effort. WOW! That is truly humbling. Glory to God. 
    Metropolitan Jonah (a hero of yours) wrote the introduction. It’s fantastic. Is worth purchasing the book just to read his introduction!!!  Perhaps some day the book will be published in Arabic? After all I AM – ANTIOCHIAN. And who knows –  even in Hebrew? (from my mouth to God’s ear). 
    My personal update: At 73 I am fully retired. My wife and I live in walking distance to 3 of our 4 children and half of our 10 grandchildren in Snohomish, Washington State an hour north of Seattle. Our son in law Fr David Sommer (Kh. Heather’s husband) is priest at St. Thomas Antiochian Mission Church here in town. I DON’T ACCEPT SPEAKING ENGAGEMENTS and I live a very simple life. Prayer, worship and fellowship.
    I have a facebook site under my legal name of Arnold Bernstein. Years ago facebook prohibited me from using my professional name Fr. James Bernstein claiming that I needed to use my legal name. At that time they would not let clergy or monastics use their professional name. Someone with the name of Fr John … or Sister Mary… could not be used. Shockingly someone with the name of for example Mother Boom Boom in Seattle could !!! An expression of the culture war we fight. Especially in large decadent urban areas like Seattle.
    George, I love your Monomakhos web site. I have been following it for years. May the Good Lord continue to bless your ministry. Especially now as the Orthodox Church  is under FIERCE attack – both from within and from without.  Lord have mercy. 
    PS In addition to the Ancient Faith Bookstore the book can be gotten on Amazon
    My Facebook site is:
    My Fine Art America site where I display my post impressionistic Vincent Van Gogh style art for a hobby is here:

    • At 73, you might not like to hear this, Father, but MANY YEARS! Thank you for the book and your contribution to Church life.

    • Michael Bauman says

      …and at Eighth Day Books which is an Orthodox Ministry as well as a family bookstore which actually deserves the support of fellow Orthodox which Amazon does not.  

    • Christine Fevronia says

      Fr. James, your book was instrumental in my path! I am so grateful for the chance to thank you! My sister married into a large Jewish family and is raising my two nieces in the faith. I participated in my older niece’s bat mitzvah five years ago, and in preparation, I read your book. During the ceremony, when my husband and I were called to the altar to sing the blessing with her Jewish relatives, I remember singing the blessing in Hebrew that we had practiced for her special day, but on the inside I was belting “Oh Heavenly King”! Fast forward to present day, and the younger niece is preparing for her bat mitzvah this summer. I reread your book and will use every opportunity I can to share the Love of Christ with my sister’s family during this event. I am so thankful for your stories and your testimony!!!

      • Estonian Slovak says

        Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa! You cannot be Orthodox and participate in Jewish ceremonies. I say this as a convert who had a Jewish great-grandfather. If people here endorse this sort of thing, all I can say is, that is what drives people to the Greek Old Calendar churches. I’d be interested to see if any priest who posts here, including Fr. James, endorses such actions. Well, maybe Fr. Patrick Reardon, since he admitted here that he enjoys reciting the Psalms in Hebrew, in synagogues. 
        I abhor anti-Semitism and any other racism. People are free to blow off my comments or call me what they will. 

        • Yeah, it’s worse than being a kid’s sponsor at first communion in a Papist church or something. Canons exist for reasons.

          Like ES, I am willing to die on this hill.

        • Christine Fevronia says

          Thank you for your concern that my Orthodox credentials may be revoked. After consultation with my parish priest, who in advance studied and vetted the two lines of the Old Testament psalm that my beloved niece asked me to read, we chose to participate.

          I will be eternally grateful that my niece has been able to participate in countless Orthodox Vespers services over the years, even though her parents could have forbade it because she was Jewish, or because the Orthodox Church forbade it because she was Jewish.

          My niece celebrated her bat mitzvah when she was 13, a very impressionable and sensitive age. For an entire hour, she led a hundred people in chanting Psalms and praying for peace in the world. The fact that she chose a spiritual path at that young age was something I supported wholeheartedly then, and do now still!

          While her teenage friends were sexting, doing drugs, and letting apathy rule their lives, my niece chose a traditional r path that she was raised and nurtured in. She still attends Orthodox Vespers with me when she can, and she adores the chanting of the Psalms. I cannot imagine what the reasoning is behind your post, as I would make the same decision a million times over. It took a lot of courage for her to publicly declare her adoration and worship of God. The fact she asked me and my family to recite two lines from an OT Psalm as part of her ceremony meant the world to me!

          As she has grown into her teenage years, we have had deep, impactful conversations about faith, spirituality, ethics, and morals. Imagine if I had rejected her out of some sort of spiritual pride or feeling superior? We would not be having these heartfelt conversations about the nature of man and the nature of God.

          We bear witness to the Love of Christ by being open and engaged. After all, our Savior was Jewish. He worshipped in the synagogue. Paul was a Jew to the Jews and a Gentile to the Gentiles. My parish priest believed, as I did, in the power of witnessing to Christ at all times. That included being present and supportive of my niece on such a momentous occasion. And it–to this day-includes bringing her to Saturday Vespers, talking about Christ, and encouraging her unique, individual path to Him.

          • Sorry, but what you wrote is jam-packed with error and relativism.
            The Church teaches that we are not to participate in non-Orthodox rites. Period. There’s nothing in there, like you suggest, of Jews being denied access to Vespers, though. That you (although in error) wrote “even though… the Orthodox Church forbade it” shows that you care little about the pastoral and dogmatic tradition of the Church.
            Your priest is, quite frankly, wrong. “Witnessing to Christ” is the excuse used by the ecumenists all the time when they engage in activities that are forbidden by the Church. Not participating has nothing to do with being proud or feeling superior – these ideas are just false humility – but being obedient to the Church.
            The god of the contemporary Jews is not the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; it is not the same God that we worship. Being a part of the Synagogue is not a “unique path to Him.” It is, in fact, rejection of Him. Encouraging someone to stay on this path is detrimental to their soul and your own.
            Now, your niece sounds very devout and quite unlike her peers; this is very nice and you should rightly be happy, but you can’t list all these positive things as a way of justifying participation in illicit religious rites.
            If you think this sounds unloving, judgmental, or another one of our modern buzzwords, that’s on you, not me. I’m just explaining the Church’s position on this matter.

          • Gail Sheppard says

            Christine, I don’t think anyone was trying to be unkind or suggest your niece hasn’t led an exemplary life. But to sing a blessing in Hebrew while internally singing “Oh Heavenly King” is not bearing witness to Christ. It’s crossing your fingers behind your back.

            Going into a church is also halachically prohibited. What does your niece do when she comes to Vespers and hears: “Lord, I call upon You, hear me!” Is she following your example and saying something different to herself?

            My concern is more for her than for you because unlike you, she hasn’t been raised to understand John 14:6: I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. I would hate for her to think they’re just words that can be substituted with other words. To teach her this, by example, even if you never told her you did this, is not witnessing Christ. It’s acknowing on the outside, where she can see and hear you, that Christ is not the Messiah. How can this be good for her?

            If you have to choose between being supportive of something that will rob your niece of the Truth vs. standing for the Truth so that she may have it for herself, do you really want to withhold it from her so you can be the supportive aunt?

            Like the others, I am not trying to be unkind, Christine, but if I read what you wrote and did not say these things to you, I also would not be witnessing Christ and worse, I would be depriving you of the truth and I can’t do that.

            • Wisely said, Gail.

            • Christine Fevronia says

              The focus of George’s blog post–Fr. James’s phenomenal book–was derailed due to something I wrote, and for that I am truly sorry.  Thank you all for your kind concern. I will speak with my parish priest about this and rely on his expert guidance.

            • George Michalopulos says

              Very kindly put Gail.

              Febronia, we –all of us on this blog (or so I believe)–very much understand your plight. Nor do we condemn you. Please put that thought out of your mind immediately.

              I guess all I can say, in addition to what Gail, Basil and others have said, is that this is a time that requires much discernment. We must be as “wise as serpents and as gentle as doves” (as our Lord said). One of the silver linings of the Grand Uglification that is ongoing in our nihilistic age is that we can see what awaits the Church on the horizon. And yes, we have bishops (such as you-know-who) leading us along the primrose path towards the arena. As such, I am always civil to those of other faith traditions but no longer seek them out. There is nothing I can “bring to the table”, mainly because of my own lack of holiness. On the other hand, I can easily be dragged down into the pit of relativism which my participation in their rites would result in.

              That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be civil or refuse to attend the rites of friends and extended family. Courtesy and tranquility demands as much. I myself have attended a Reformed Jewish funeral (the chanting by the retired rabbi was exquisite). I have also attended dozens of Catholic masses because both of my sons were parochially schooled. The depredations of the Novus Ordo mass made me appreciate the Russian-derived Orthodox liturgy of my OCA parish. Still, that’s a high price to pay. And I have admitted that on occasion I attended a Byzantine Rite parish when there we did not have an OCA parish yet. (It was clear to me that the priest was very enamored of Orthodoxy but his wife was a no-go.)

              Bottom line: you, me and everyone else in the Orthodox Church need to work on our own salvation rather than while away our time with those who don’t believe as we do (and probably never will).

              • Solitary Priest says

                     No condemnation of the lady in question, but a condemnation of actions contrary to the Orthodox faith, such as actively participating in Jewish religious ceremonies very much so.
                     I had waited to see if any other cleric would weigh in on this, or a learned monk, such as Fr. James. I consulted with two Archpriests more learned than myself. One is a local priest, his own wife has relatives who are Jewish. They attend the nieces or nephews religious events in the synagogue, but without participating.
                    Then I consulted my own spiritual father, a Greek American like yourself. He fled first to the OCA, where he was ordained, and later to ROCOR. He concurs that it is simply not possible for an Orthodox to participate in non Christian services. Actually, Canon law mandates it, so even if the two priests didn’t share my view, it would not matter.
                    One can understand being present at certain events, while maintaining a respectful silence. Perhaps, in the eyes of some here, I am a Pharisee. I’m certainly sinful and unworthy. In fact, I am like the Prodigal Son, except that I haven’t repented to the extent that I should have.
                   But I cannot be silent when I see people flouting the teachings of the Church. I tire of hearing,” There’s only one man upstairs,” or from Russians,” Bog Odin,(there is) One God, or in Serbian, “Jedan Bog”, One God. If we accept that there is one God and that Jesus Christ is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, then Judaism and Islam( Islam recognises Christ as a prophet and the Virgin Birth, but deny His Divinity, then it stands to reason that neither Judaism nor Islam share our Trinitarian God.

                • Gail Sheppard says

                  Not only can you not be silent, I would argue, you MUST not be silent, Father. It serves no one to hedge or mislead someone about the Truth as taught by the Church. Fortunately, it looks as if some fruit came from this.

                • George Michalopulos says

                  Absolutely, Fr.  No apologies necessary.

                  • Solitary Priest says

                    Well, George, I notice no other clergy have commented at all. I’m sorry to be the heavy here, but I don’t see how we can condemn Patriarch Bartholomew for his errors and say nothing when parish priests give their blessing to things that should not be.
                         I’m sure we all consider St. John the Theologian to be a trusted source. Let everyone here read today’s Epistle. That says it all.
                        I hesitate to comment further, because I’m a sinful old man who hasn’t practiced what he has preached. May God have mercy on all of us!

                    • Gail Sheppard says

                      Perhaps they didn’t comment because other people did.  What needed to be said was said.

                    • Solitary Priest,
                      ” I hesitate to comment further, because I’m a sinful old man who hasn’t practiced what he has preached. May God have mercy on all of us!”

                      Father Ioannis Diotis is now 90(!) years old and he still writes open letters to Bartholomew (They are in Greek, but  can translate them by Google and other engines):

                    • Solitary Priest says

                      Gail, I’m sorry, but I don’t agree. When clergy don’t speak out, silence is taken as assent. Furthermore, I can’t see how a synagogue would countenance a non-Jew actively participating in any service, unless it is a Reform temple. Reform Judaism is on board with Gay rights, abortion; in short everything we as Orthodox are supposed to be opposed to.
                          The same argument about love for family members is used now by the Greek church to extend the Eucharist to non-Orthodox spouses. It has been also used to urge toleration of the gay lifestyle within the Church. Right now, the former priest Sanfillipo is going after Metropolitan Joseph of the Antiochian church because the Metropolitan wouldn’t cave in to demands to discipline Fr. Josiah Trenham. Fr. Josiah is labeled as a hate monger for speaking out against the gay lifestyle. He also is against heterosexual fornication, as any cleric should be.
                           I loved my late father, but I couldn’t give him an Orthodox funeral. In life, he rejected the faith he was brought up in. I love my brother, but I couldn’t give him communion because he was never baptized in any church. And if that makes a a Pharisee, so be it.

                    • Gail Sheppard says

                      I do see your point, Solitary Priest, and I am very glad you did speak out. Silence is, indeed, assent.

          • Christine Fevronia: “We bear witness to the Love of Christ by being open and engaged.”
            Not necessarily. When we refuse to participate in non-Christian rites, at least actively (as opposed to mere presence and observation, I went recently to be present at memorial Catholic service after death of our friend) we send a signal that there is something else. When we join them actively, we send a signal that there is no important difference.
            So instead of pointing that there is a bread, that they can come and get, we offer them a stone of false unity

          • Antiochene Son says

            I can sympathize with your situation as I have found myself in similar predicaments with my family members, including the Evangelical re-baptism of my sister and my brother’s family attending a church which opposes paedobaptism (so my nieces and nephews are, as of now, literally pagans, which is tragic to me).
            The mind of the Church tells me not to participate or encourage them in their false paths, and perhaps surprisingly, my family respects my point of view and it has opened up many avenues for constructive dialogue, and I plant seeds where I can.
            This post is full of coping, which again, I understand. But there is no “unique path to Christ” within Judaism—especially when the strongest Christians in your niece’s life are encouraging her to embrace falsehood and adherence to the dead and death-bringing law (Rom. 7:4, 2 Cor. 3:6) of the Talmud (which, by the way, teaches that the Theotokos was a harlot and that Christ is boiling in excrement).
            Finally, to the oft-repeated point that “the Apostles were Jews”—the Jewish religion changed radically after the rise of Christianity. Its fundamental characteristic is its opposition to Christ, such that the Masoretes mutilated their own scriptures in order to nullify as many Christian claims as possible. They absolutely reject Christ; they must in order to remain Jews, because the Messiah has not yet come. Some do away with the Messiah altogether.
            So to be clear, I sympathize with your situation, but I don’t think that a full endorsement of the path of false religion coming from a Christian uncle and aunt is a way to encourage one to come to Christ. (Unless you’re plotting a bait and switch sometime down the road.)

          • Christine, God bless you. Yor are expressing love for Christ. Forget what the pharisees on this blog write.

            • Gail Sheppard says

              It was just one sentence that could have easily been written off as unimportant, but it was because she loves her niece and Christ so much that we responded. That, and because we love her. She knows that or she wouldn’t have responded so graciously. In all the years I’ve known her, she has always engaged people with the same wisdom and kindness she has shown today. She’s not going to write anybody off because she thinks they’re “pharisees”! Interesting that you don’t see it this way.

            • George Michalopulos says

              JK, nobody is a Pharisee here.  Though there were many good Pharisees (i.e. Joseph of Arimethea, Nicodemus and Gamaliel), the “word on the street” about them were that they were religious elitists who never saw an opportunity to be self-serving.  They rigged the religious game against the am ha’aretz, or the common people (“of the land”) who barely scraped by in order to live and could not afford to be as punctilious about the law as they.

              We laymen in America on the other hand, are being cast to and fro’ by the Phanariotes who constantly find fault with us as we try and navigate what it means to be an Orthodox Christian.  They constantly come up with new reasons why America can’t have autocephaly but Ukraine can have autocephaly, even though American bishops are validly ordained while the Ukrainian ones are enrobed charlatans.

              Speaking for myself, I know that many in the pro-life movement have asked for –nay, begged for,  GOA priests and bishops to join them in the various March for Life but the rejoinders was always “we can’t because [reasons]”.   Yet when some metropolitan from an extinct mountaintop in Turkey is given money to go to some useless ecumenical symposium in Gstaad or Johannesburg, you better get out of the way or else you’ll be run over as they run for the limousine which will take them to the airport in Istanbul.   (With Louis Vuitton baggage and hangers-on in tow.)

              • Tim R. Mortiss says

                Our GOA priest is extremely active in March For Life, as is our congregation in general.

          • Michael Bauman says

            Christine, the prohibition of attending the religious services of non-Orthodox is a hard saying to our ears. We live in times when everybody’s “spiritual path” is equal.  That is a lie.   The life in Christ is not a “spiritual path” in the modern sense at all. The Orthodox life in Christ is a congugal union–not to be adulterated. It is like no other.  

            What you can’t know is what the outcome would be for your niece and others had you followed the Orthodox prohibition in love and with mercy-not condemnation. “I love you my dear but I love Jesus Christ more and I cannot do what you ask.”  As Paul said, you are free but some acts should not be done so as not to scandalize others.  

            Boundaries are crucial in the Christian life.  Boundaries are tough for we human beings. God set one boundary for us in The Garden. We would not respect it.  

            The Church actually has few boundaries but not participating in foreign religious services is one.  
            No question such a decision in the particularity of your situation is heart wrenching.  I can say with no certainty what I would have done. Even thinking about it makes my heart ache. None of the particulars apply to me though.   

            Your love of your niece is wonderful but what would have been your response if she had asked you to deny Christ specifically even if only once for a brief moment?   

            I am sure you would have said no.  Even if a priest told you it was OK.  

            This world is rarely that blunt and open. Instead we are asked to make little denials hundreds of times a day and die the death of a thousand cuts.

            Lord have mercy on us, poor and faithless servants that we are.

            • Christine Fevronia says

              I am so thankful for all the love shown here. I promise that I will do my due diligence and study this issue more in-depth. It is confusing and honestly quite challenging to navigate the interfaith waters of my family life, and I do truly appreciate every comment and the concern shown. Please pray for me a sinner.

    • George Michalopulos says

      Fr, words fail me.  Glory be to God in the highest!  (I’ll check out the van Gogh site.)

    • Tim R. Mortiss says

      Fr. James, I have ordered the book forthwith.
      You are in my very backyard, as I am a Tacoman…I’d warrant you know our local priests, Fr. Seraphim of St. Nicholas and Fr. John of Holy Trinity/Holy Resurrection.
      I am very much looking forward to reading the book.

  4. Fr. David Sommer says

    It’s a great book for cradle and convert. Fr James’ explanation of sin and salvation is the clearest, best and easiest to be understood of any comparable writing in English.  It is available in Greek, Serbian, Romanian, Russian as well as English (soon to be in Portuguese). If you want to hear it read in Queens English (Brooklyn not Buckingham) it’s on audiobook too.