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On My Table:
Life & Books with Ben Smith

This month’s On My Table comes from Ben Smith. He’s a husband and a father, a self-confessed geek, and a theology nerd. He lives with the conviction that all people should be honoured and respected while ideas and beliefs should be tested and challenged.

What book(s) are you currently reading?

One of my missions for the year is to read through Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. I’m also reading through Martin Luther’s Commentary on Romans with some friends of mine. Both books have been absolute gold so far.

I’m also reading The Rise of Rome by Plutarch. It’s a selection of his Parallel Lives where he compares Greek and Roman heroes. I read “The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives” last year as part of the Challies 2016 Reading Challenge and enjoyed it so much that I was keen to read more of his work. I’m finding it to be really interesting on two levels. Firstly, Plutarch is a masterful writer and it’s great learning about these people, most of whom I’ve never heard of. Secondly, I’ve found that it’s actually provided some great insight into the culture at the time. For example, in the course of speaking about one hero he talks about the Roman view of vultures. Contrary to our modern perspective where we think of them as dirty scavengers the Romans considered them to be a symbol of purity because they don’t kill anything.

I’ve also got a few books lined up to read including Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (I’ve heard a lot about it and I’m curious to read it to form my own opinion of it), Playing Before The Lord: The Life and Work of Joseph Hayden (I’m trying to read more biographies lately and this one sounded interesting) and Romain Puertolas’ The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped In An Ikea Wardrobe (how can you possibly walk past a book with this title?)

What was the last book you left unfinished?

I’m a bit of a completionist so I don’t like leaving books unfinished. The last book I left unfinished was either Augustine’s Confessions or Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle. I managed to finish both of them as part of the 2016 Reading Challenge though which makes me feel a bit better about it.

Is there a book you feel guilty for not reading?

Not really, I read for pleasure and to learn and the books that I read reflect that. If there’s a book that I feel that I have to read then I’ll categorise it as something that I want to read as opposed to something that I’m obliged to read which takes any sort of guilt out of it. I figure life’s too short to feel guilty about reading or not reading something. There’s plenty of other stuff in life to be legitimately guilty about.

Is there a book you wish you’d written?

I think on one level or another I wish I’d been able to write a lot of books that I read. Whether it’s wanting to have the ability to write a great work of fiction or the theological understanding to write a book like Knowing God. Ultimately though I’m just grateful that God has blessed the world and the church with great authors and I’m content with the fact that I’m not one of them.

What was the last book you gave as a present?

I’m not sure what it was exactly but the last book that I gave as a present was a book that a friend of mine needed for Bible College.

Best biography you’ve ever read?

D.A. Carson’s biography of his father “Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor” would have to be at the top of the list. It’s a fascinating look at a man who was deeply flawed and didn’t have an international platform but who served God faithfully.

What 5 books would you take to a desert island?

John Calvin’s Institute of the Christian Religion
Even the little that I’ve read of this so far has shown me that it’s a work that I need to spend a great deal of time with, going over and over it. I suspect that I could read it many times and never run out of things to learn from it.

Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy
This is a trilogy that I read purely for pleasure. I know I’m cheating because it’s three books but it’s one story so it totally counts. I’ve read these books several times over the years and they’re highly enjoyable. They’re also long so they’re going to take a bit of time to get through.

Tim Keller’s Prayer
Prayer is something that I’m honestly not good at but Keller’s book is something that I have learned from and will continue to learn from.

J.I. Packer’s Knowing God
We read through this book last year and I think it deserves its status as a classic. I suspect it’s something that I’m going to read once a year for the rest of my life.

C.J. Mahaney’s Humility
If there’s one thing that I need to always be reminded of it’s to be humble. This is another book that I’m planning to read every year.

What book has most frustrated you?

I’ve had a few books that have frustrated me because I’ve found them difficult to get through (see the books that I’ve left unfinished) but the book that’s frustrated me the most has done so due to the content. One of the categories in Challies’ 2016 Reading Challenge was to read a book by someone of a different ethnicity to me. The book that I chose was Deepak Chopra’s The 13th Disciple. I knew enough about Chopra to not expect great theology but Christianity got so badly misrepresented that it actually infuriated me.

What is one book (apart from the bible) you’d encourage every Christian to read?

In today’s culture I’d recommend James White’s What Every Christian Needs To Know About the Qur’an. Obviously Islam has become a significant factor in society and there’s a lot of rhetoric that gets thrown around with questionable validity. White has a look at the history of the Qur’an as well as some of the theology that it contains and highlights some of the inconsistencies and issues with it.

How does reading fit into your life? And what does your routine look like?

Growing up reading was a big part of my life but over time it got replaced by games and TV. Last year, however, I participated in Tim Challies’ 2016 reading challenge which I’ve mentioned once or twice already. The challenge was to read 104 books in different categories. I went in to it intentionally to get back into reading but with an attitude to see how I would go. I didn’t expect to read books in all 104 categories but expected to get something around the 70-80 book mark. As it turned out I managed to finish it by the end of November. Because of that reading has come back to being a big part of my life. Also, the reading challenge has encouraged me to read widely so where I used to primarily read Sci-Fi and Fantasy I’m now intentionally reading more variety. I’m trying to read on average one biography a month, several theological works and other non-fiction works in addition to some fiction.

As far as my routine goes, I catch the train to work so have about 35 minutes each morning and afternoon where I read. I tend to get to work about 20 mins early so if I’m in the middle of a chapter or just generally engrossed with a book I’ll use that time for reading as well. Finally I tend to have about an hour between 10-11pm at home to use for my own entertainment that I sometimes read in. At the moment I’m using that time (when I read instead of doing other things) to read Calvin’s Institutes so that I don’t have to carry it on the train (it’s quite a hefty book). Finally, I have a number of blogs that I subscribe to through Feedly that I read at various points during the day.

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Published inOn My Table