I want to, but will not, pretend that I've recently visited Manson in his prime and Vonhogen in his early web ministry years, and am coming back from interesting conversations over coffee. For all of my appreciation of the Dr. Who series in which time is described as "a ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff" (at least in the reboot series), I know that it is, much to my regret, linear—or at least linear to the extent that that's the only way any of us will ever experience it. It's just one thing after another this side of eternity.
Nor will I say that I met them both in print sitting among stacks of the public library or a bookstore, the smell of paper and ink in my nostrils and the romance of reading in my heart, although, this is, in fact, much closer to the truth. Instead, with much less romance, but greater technical prowess, I downloaded them to my Kindle. And, there they both sit: a biography of the murderer and an autobiography of the priest.
Once I finished the research I needed to do for my recent talk, "Double Top Secret Volleyball and the New Evangelization", I was able to dive back into some lighter reading (lighter in the sense of writing style not subject matter). I had been working on Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn for awhile before needing to set it aside.
I first took an interest in this book after reading a review of it in National Review, but my interest was furthered because this is a story that has been in and out of the news all of my life, but which I had never really stopped to read and fully understand. Charles Manson and his followers committed the murders that resulted in his being sentenced to death (later reduced to life when the death penalty was, briefly, held to be unconstitutional in California) when I was only about three years old.
Like many of the significant events of the Sixties, it was a story I heard about throughout my teenage and young adult life, but which I never made the effort to read more about. Because of the seemingly unending nostalgia wave that has only started to abate in recent years, my thoughts from about 1984 on were to let the Baby Boomers have the Sixties because I was already tired of hearing about that decade and the Chosen Generation.
So, my awareness of this story comes from the news accounts of the occasional parole hearings at which he and his followers were routinely denied release. I knew an actress had been murdered and that the country had been shaken, but that was about it.
In Guinn's exceptionally well-written book, however, I finally caught up on the story of a man who should have been too old for the Flower Power generation but who arrived on the streets of San Francisco in 1967 just in time for the Summer of Love. Already in his thirties, Manson was on parole from federal prison where he had been sent for 10 years for trying to cash a forged U.S. Treasury check (a crime that had followed a long career of felonies, some violent, going back to his juvenile years).
But, it was the Sixties, and in San Francisco a prison record that should have tagged him as a dangerous loser, instead gave him the aura of rebellion against the establishment that he needed to gather a group around his, by then, imitative and uninspired preaching about peace and love. According to Guinn, Manson's ambition in having a group of followers was to give him the counter-culture credibility to land a recording contract. A fatherless boy who grew into an intensely narcissistic adult, Manson was convinced that he would, one day, be as big as the Beatles.
However, his music, most charitably described as "listenable", wasn't deemed by the recording industry execs he had managed to get to listen as potentially profitable. It was Manson's frustration at not being able to land a contract that began the spiral downhill that first drew his followers into break-ins, then burglary and, finally, murder. That it took place in the Sixties and involved a Hollywood couple, a coffee-manufacturing heiress, and others in prominent circles gave the story its initial energy. That the killings were committed by the followers of a man who should have been executed but wasn't has kept the story in the news, and fresh, for forty-four years.
Guinn's account is both extremely readable and very well researched. His portrait of Manson and his followers has a depth to it that marks him as an accomplished writer. Even if you don't want to, you'll feel like you know these people when you are finished reading. It is a mid-Twentieth Century American story of a fatherless boy who got off on the wrong track, had no spiritual reference for finding the right path, and went horribly wrong at the same time, and in many of the same ways, as our country did.
***Somewhere about half-way through Manson, I bought Father Roderick Vonhogen's book, GeekPriest: Confessions of a New Media Pioneer, because he asked me to. Well, I was planning on buying it anyway, but looking at my stack of books, both electronic and paper, I knew that it might be quite awhile. I figured I would defer the cost until I had reached a point in my reading where I could reasonably expect that I would actually start it.
But, I am a regular listener to his weekly podcast, The Break with Father Roderick, and, like any successful author, he asked his listeners to buy GeekPriest. The essence of podcasting and other new media is to build a relationship with your listeners. Mine has been building with Father Roderick since I first heard The Daily Breakfast, precursor to The Break, back in 2005. Nearly seven years later, I met him in person at the Catholic New Media Conference in Dallas which I wrote about at the time. While I wouldn't say we are old friends, or even that he would remember me if we ran into each other, the electronic connection is there and I bought the book.
As it turned out, it was the perfect book for a weekend read. At only about 175 pages, Father Roderick doesn't waste time getting to his point or telling his story. His message is what it has been in the eight years since I started listening to The Daily Breakfast. He is an apostle of the new media made possible by the internet and one of the few in the Church who have made effective use of it.
Having been active in internet ministry almost since the beginning of the World Wide Web, Vonhogen is a priest in the Netherlands who has made contacts and converts on the web first through a blog dedicated to Star Wars, and then, when the technology emerged, through audio and video podcasts geared to the audiences of major science fiction and fantasy movies, as well as to popular video games. He uses his interest in these movies and games to engage people and to evangelize them. Over and over again his message is that the Church needs to go where the people are, and if they are searching for The Lord of the Rings or Star Trek, then that's where Catholics need to be with a soft evangelization that weaves the secular interest in with the Good News.
If you are an Evangelical Protestant, your reaction is probably "Well, duh". But, for Catholics, this is new territory, and because it is in the nature of the Church not to be first-adopters of new technology or ways of proclaiming the Word, Vonhogen's message is both needed and invigorating.
In GeekPriest, you will join Father Vonhogen on his trips around the world from Rome to World Youth Days to the set of The Hobbit movies in New Zealand. My only criticisms of this book are minor. The first is that Vonhogen, while an exceptionally talented producer of audio and video, comes across as a bit less smooth in the book. His transitions from pop culture to the Gospel and back again seem a bit clunky at times in print. Also calling the book Confessions oversells what is actually in the book, as does the review on Amazon which calls GeekPriest "an engrossing collection of stories and anecdotes."
What you'll find instead is an interesting priest with interesting and entertaining stories to tell, and a vision that is in step with the times but fifteen steps ahead of the institutional Church. However, he's making an impact and that, along with a relentlessly upbeat personality, is what makes him and his book engaging and worth the read. And, after the book, I encourage you to become more acquainted with him at his podcasting network SQPN.com.