The Reverend Benedict Varnum holds a Master's of Divinity from the University of Chicago, and serves as a priest in the Episcopal Church. His interests include faith, politics, and culture.
Articles By This Author
The Ice Bucket Challenge and Its Discontents
The Ice Bucket Challenge, or "IBC," needs little introduction. Over the past month or two, it's been the internet phenomenon of challenging friends, family and co-workers to participate in some combination of donating to the ALS Association, becoming educated about the disease, or dumping a bucket of ice-cold water over their head and video-taping it. The rules are somewhat (pardon the term) fluid—but basically, invitees are given 24 hours to respond and challenge up to three persons. I don't have precise numbers—they're still increasing—but ALSA has reported over 3 million donors and over 100 million dollars raised in the past few month. Not to mention the payoff of seeing your dear ones get soaked and squeal, shudder, or grin and bear it.
But I think it's also raised a second topic into public debate: the ethics of action and motivation. And even beyond the philanthropy going on, I think that's worth talking about, and I suspect it will be the Challenge's more enduring legacy.
Overland Park Shootings: Learning to Love With Breaking Hearts
The violence of hatred breaks our hearts. This past weekend in my neighborhood of Overland Park, a shooter killed three people and injured others. My church sits a mile from the sites, and members of my parish know the families of the victims. We are in the process of responding, holding vigils and praying, seeking to comfort one another and make sense of this hateful thing.
I know two ways souls respond to such hate. In one, the heart hardens against the violence, protecting itself. In the other, the heart weeps, leaving itself open to be broken again.
The first way can seem so right. There is a dark logic in giving our hearts permission to loathe the one who could go to so terrible a place, and arm himself to take lives randomly with gunfire. There is a sort of helpless security in burying our hearts away from the reports of such violence. If this gives up some piece of our humanity, at least it keeps our hearts from feeling such pain again.
Yet I have to believe in the other way, leaving my heart open to the world, though it will be broken again and again. In part, this is because I know that claiming permission to hate one man makes way for hating others, and then hating them by groups and by labels, until perhaps one day I wouldn’t care if they lived or died.
An Advent Tune-Up for Faith
Thinking back, I haven’t always been great about getting my car “winterized.” I grew up in fairly temperate Kansas, and mostly parked in a garage at home. There didn’t seem to be too great a chance of the car’s malfunctioning on me, and I was often more interested in where the car was getting me than whether it was in prime shape. I knew the car would never be perfect, but by and large, it seemed functional.
Then I moved to Chicago, where the winters were colder, the streets harder, and a garage a rare luxury. Suddenly winterizing seemed a bit more critical.
Today I am (by virtue of my baptism and in a way specifically called for by my ordination vows) partly in the business of serving as a prophet. Oh, I don’t rate myself as too great of one, but I do think that God has made me a part of that work. I may not be all of Christ’s Body, but I’m a piece of it. So prophecy and transformation are some of my duties too. And the season of Advent has me thinking a bit about whether I do enough to “winterize” my prophecy.
Introverts: Caring for Dandelions
Recently I’ve been re-reading Susan Cain’s excellent book, Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Extroverts will want to take it with a grain of salt (although some of the book’s speculations suggest that extroverts are fairly thick-skinned about being taken down off their pedestals), but the book is a fascinating exploration of what it’s like to be an introvert in the world, including some analysis about how one gets to be an introvert, anyway, including how much is genetic, and how much comes from early environment.
It was in reading one of these “nature or nurture?” passages that I first encountered the “orchid hypothesis.” Taking its name from David Dobbs’ 2009 article, “The Science of Success,” published in The Atlantic, the orchid hypothesis essentially argues, as Cain puts it, that:
“… many children are like dandelions, able to thrive in just about any environment. But others, including the high-reactive types that [developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan] studied, are more like orchids: they wilt easily, but under the right conditions can grow strong and magnificent.” (Quiet, 111)
This jumped off the page at me.
The Accidental Moral Mirror of Monsters University
This week an online ad informed me that Monsters University has finished first at the box office for two weeks running. I’m convicted by the statistic; I saw it somewhere between Northfield, Minn., and the Twin Cities on the “Largest Movie Screen in Minnesota” last week while visiting my brother. But it struck me that the movie presents – probably quite by accident – an opportunity to talk about a deep moral reality. So what follows will only begin obliquely by talking about cute monsters. And it will contain (mostly minor) spoilers. You’ve been warned.
An 'Unsettling:' Non-Catholics and Pope Francis
When I heard about the white smoke on Wednesday, I wrote on my Facebook wall: “Habent Papum.” My own church doesn’t use Latin, so I had to use Google translate to figure out how to change the “We have a pope” of “Habemus Papam” into “They have a pope.” I got a few good laughs for my cleverness before a Catholic friend humbly reminded me that it wasn’t just their pope, and that I’d have to deal with him too ... he has no idea how prophetic his words have turned out to be.
You see, I didn’t expect to tune in at all to the election of the pope. I was raised in the Catholic Church and received its early sacraments before my family joined the Episcopal Church (my father’s tradition). I spent plenty of time in high school and after defending its practices and traditions against atheists and Protestant friends and colleagues, and I more than made up for that by pressing hard on my Catholic friends on the nuances I didn’t understand. But mostly I only paid attention when the Catholic Church said something publicly or took a political stand on an issue I cared about.
But on Wednesday, the white smoke got in my eyes, and rather than confusing my sight, it’s made things a little clearer.