The morning of July 5, 2007, dawns cool and foggy. The tents and trees and outhouses of the Brushwood Folklore Center in west New York are enveloped in a luminous haze. My husband Lucas and I are at this campsite, just 8 miles from Lake Eerie, to participate in X-Day, the annual festival of The Church of the SubGenius. It is 6.50 a.m. and we are waiting for the arrival of the alien sex goddesses.
From a contingent of over 100 people, only about 30 have gathered to welcome the aliens in person, and some of those look like they have been up all night. A few are still swigging from beer cans. The campsite is “clothing optional” but I’m relieved to see that no one has chosen to exercise this right. Instead, the group includes: one tall, skinny man in a blonde wig, platform shoes and pajamas; a petite woman in a full gold lamé body suit and carnival mask; a buxom redhead in fishnets and devil horns; a U.S. Marine, recently back from Iraq and sporting a short Mohawk; and a couple in their mid 30’s, draped in plaid blankets, holding their small, smiling baby.
From the sound system of a nearby car comes the soft refrain of the M.A.S.H. theme tune, “Suicide is Painless” – an appropriately morbid song considering that the world is about to end. According to church lore, when the aliens arrive, they will lay waste to the human race – unless, that is, you have paid the $30 fee to become an ordained SubGenius minister, in which case you will whisked away in their space vessels to spawn a new race of superhumans, and rule the universe. The first X-Day was in 1998, but the aliens didn’t show. It was deemed a trial run, a test of faith – as has every July 5 since. Now we are at the tenth X-Day – X-Day-X, as people are calling it. The big one. Hopes are high.
It’s a little chilly, waiting for the moment of reckoning. The transvestite and the gold-suited woman light cigarettes, and the redhead announces, in a throaty voice and a deep Southern accent: “Ain’t it sad to have the power to see a terrible future and do nothing to stop it?” The Reverend Ivan Stang shows us how to say X-Day in sign language, in case the aliens are deaf. Apparently the sign for “X” is the same as the one for “Huh?”
Just before 7 a.m., a deep, male voice recorded over the music begins a countdown: “60 seconds to the Rupture! 30 seconds to the Rupture! Ten, nine, eight, seven ” The crowd joins in and when we get to zero everyone looks up, expectantly.
Nothing. Fog, and golden, early morning light. The Reverend Stang shrugs. “Screwed by “Bob” again!” he says, adding cheerfully that “ we didn’t get our sex goddesses, but at least it didn’t rain!” He hands out small, disc-shaped, pastel-colored pieces of candy called flying saucers. “Aren’t those supposed to be inserted vaginally?” says one man. “Isn’t everything?” quips the redhead.
Just as the attention level in the group starts to flag, Stang gathers everyone together and asks them to wave their hands in the air, look up at the sky, and chant “Bob” over and over again, while his wife, Princess Wei, records it all with a video camera. “For CNN,” he explains. “So we’ll look like real cult members.”
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“It should be pretty obvious that no one really expected the aliens to come,” the Reverend Stang tells me afterwards. “But, still you never know. It’s supposed to be a head scratcher,” he says. “When are we serious? When are we not? And we can’t tell you that. It would take all the fun out it. Maybe it is all a joke. But if it is, you can be sure of one thing: we are not going to bullshit you.” Such is the conundrum of the Church of the SubGenius – a satirical religion so full of pastiche, skepticism and weirdness that paradoxically, it might be a good idea to take it very seriously indeed.
When the aliens arrive, they will lay waste to the human race – unless, that is, you have paid the $30 fee to become an ordained SubGenius minister.
The Reverend Ivan Stang is a central figure in the Church, and its primary spokesman. Stang, whose given name is Douglass St. Clair Smith, was born in Washington D.C. but raised in Fort Worth, Texas. He is now in his mid-50s, with straggly grey hair he pulls back into a long ponytail, and wire-frame oval glasses that make him look owlish. He talks with a pronounced Texas twang, and his smile looks suspiciously like a smirk.
A self-described audio-visual geek, he grew up making claymation films – homemade monsters doing battle on screen. He even won some competitions with them when he was in his teens, sparking a life-long fascination with low budget special effects and B-movies. Combined with his other interests – underground comics and radio, science fiction literature and televangelism (anything, really, from the underbelly of American popular culture) – and you have the potent brew from which the Church of the SubGenius was born.
The church was officially established in 1980 by Stang and The Revered Philo Drummond, his friend and fellow underground culture enthusiast. That was the year they released Pamphlet # 1, also known as “The World Ends Tomorrow AND YOU MAY DIE!” – their first attempt to capture church doctrine in print. This eight-page document, a humorous, hysterical mash-up of exhortations, preaching, public service announcement and an all-out sales pitch, was mailed to comic book stores, record shops, and alternative weekly presses across America. “Are you abnormal?” the pamphlet asks. “Then you are probably better than most people! Yes! Your kind shall triumph!”
“To our surprise,” Stang once told an interviewer, “people responded.” In fact, large numbers of people started sending in money to join the church. Stang and Drummond channeled their profits into new products – another pamphlet, a book – and attracted more interest. The church grew. Eventually, the roll call of famous members came to contain some of the most prominent counter-cultural figures in America: Tim Leary, Ken Kesey, Robert Anton Wilson, and the cartoonists Robert Crumb and Paul Mavrides (the latter of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics). Paul Reubens, the actor who plays Pee-wee Herman, was an active member and he included SubGenius imagery in every episode of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. The band Devo embraced and helped spread the ideas of the church.
Now there are approximately 35,000 members worldwide. At least, that’s Stang’s estimate, though he admits that he doesn’t have a fail-proof record keeping system and his number might be off by five or ten thousand in either direction.
The Church is not a legally recognized religion, so it pays taxes. Stang says that’s just fine – the Church of the SubGenius doesn’t recognize the state, either. Church membership fees, along with royalties from various publications and profits from the sale of SubGenius products, now provide Stang with a personal income of around $50,000 per year. He doesn’t hide this fact; he always wanted the Church to be a money-making venture, and the idea that anyone would be stupid enough to actually pay for salvation is part of the joke. “Pull the wool over your own eyes” is another of the Church’s many slogans. Plenty of other religions solicit funds from their congregations – and Stang argues that nothing of value is offered in return. In the Church of the Subgenius, $30 buys you a membership pack full of stickers, postcards, artwork and information – “I have to get 30 different pieces of paper together for that!” he says – plus a years subscription to a SubGenius newsletter. The Church also provides a triple-your-money-back guarantee: if a church member should die and find themselves at the gates of hell, they’ll receive a check for $90 plus the offer of a book entitled How to Enjoy Hell for Five Cents an Eternity, priced at $89.95.
After talking to Stang, it’s pretty clear that what drives the production of new Church products is not profit, but passion: to circulate ideas, create and share art, and poke fun a rigid ideologies. At the same time, the Church propagates a deeply skeptical world view.. “We are more like an advertising agency than a religion,” he says. “We won’t tell you what to think, we’ll tell you how.”
The SubGenius media empire currently includes five SubGenius books (with approximately 120,000 copies in circulation), one movie (Arise!, distributed by PolyGram, boycotted by Blockbuster), three radio shows (with Stang’s own Hour of Slack syndicated across America), one official website (www.subgenius.com, which receives up to 24,000 unique visitors a day), three active newsroom discussion groups (with 200-plus daily postings) and regular gatherings (or “devivals” as the church calls them) in countries across the globe. Now, primarily because of the church’s online presence (“the Internet saved our butts in the ‘90s” says Stang), membership is steadily growing at the rate of about 90-150 members a month. It might not sound like much, but if you take Stang’s estimate of 35,000 as a starting point, that’s a 5 percent yearly growth rate – well above the global growth rates for Christianity and Islam, according to the International Bulletin of Missionary Research and The World Christian Encyclopedia. And not bad when you consider that the people attracted to SubGenius ideas are not typically the joining kinds.
Part of the reason for this growth might be the church’s openness. It has made a virtue of appealing to the unconventional or, as it says in church publications, to “ gimps, perverts, dope addicts, hippies, those who still read books, sex fiends, victimless criminals, mutants, misfits, disbelievers, fanboys, geeks, and obnoxious nerds.”
Or it could be the icon-like image of the church’s figurehead, JR “Bob” Dobbs (the quote marks are part of his name). “Bob” takes the form of a piece of cut art from the ‘50s – a smiling, disembodied man with a pipe in his mouth.
Is there a typical SubGenius? I ask Reverend Stang. “No,” he replies. “And if we find one, we’ll kill it.”
To the SubGeniuses, he’s a kind of Godhead (albeit one that is open to ridicule). To the SubGenius Foundation, Inc, the profit-making business arm of the church, he’s a moneymaking registered trademark. According to church lore, he’s the world’s best salesman and the living incarnation of “slack,” the substance all SubGeniuses are striving to obtain, and which has been defined, variously, as “ perfect luck, achievement without ability” or “the absence of tension” or “vital powers of abnormality.” (The encouragement to abstain from potentially slack-draining activities – such as, say, working at a conventional job – might be another factor in the church’s appeal.)
Or, it could just be the humor. The most essential of “Bob’s” sayings (and the only one, according to the Reverend Stang, that sums everything up) is: “Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.” As this line indicates, SubGenius humor is not a subtle tool. It’s dark, politically incorrect, frequently crass, sometimes stupid, occasionally hilarious and usually designed to deliver maximum offense to those who hold religious belief as sacred. Puns feature prominently in SubGenius jokes. As “Bob” says: “Believe me out of it.”
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X-Day runs for five days, and after the drama of the 7 a.m. Rupture on day one, the scene devolves into one of good-natured disorganization. People sleep until about 10 or 11 a.m. and then someone, somewhere, will start blasting techno or psychedelic rock and by 2 or 3 in the afternoon, people have congregated around the pavilion, a wooden, staged area with a bank of electronic equipment and a loose program of events. “Bob” heads are everywhere – emblazoned on banners, shirts, pins and stickers, and flashing and rotating in the psychedelic montage of images being projected onto a screen at the back of the stage.
Looking around, I try to identify what pulls this group together, but it’s hard to find a SubGenius “type”. They come from all walks of life. Bikers, computer programmers, mechanics, retailers, office workers, artists – pretty much the same kind of cross section you’d find in a New York bar. They tend to be united in political outlook, however. “The church is way top-heavy with liberals,” Stang admits, “though we try to be nice to the conservatives too.” Is there a typical SubGenius? I ask him. “No,” he replies. “And if we find one, we’ll kill it.”
Later I get talking to The Reverend Saint Alex. At 21 years old, he’s one of the younger SubGeniuses that I meet over the weekend, and one of the few who hasn’t taken a fancy SubGenius name. (Everyone gets to add Reverend, Doctor, Sister, or another religious moniker to their title when they join, but most people chose a new first name too. Alex chose to stay as Alex.) He joined the church when he was 12, and started coming to X-Day when he was 14. “If you look at the SubGenius books, one third is probably funny stories about “Bob” and his exploits, one third is great art work and interesting ideas, and one third is just good, common sense,” he says. “The Church of the SubGenius is the closest thing I have to religion because at heart, I’m a deeply, deeply skeptical person.” And then he quotes the Revered Stang: “We mock our cherished beliefs because that’s how much we cherish belief.”
On day two of the festival the Reverend Carter Leblanc, a tall, dark, intense-looking man, takes to the stage. He wants to talk, he says, about the CON – the Conspiracy Of Normals – and two of the weapons that can be used to fight it: mockery and perversion.
The Church of the SubGenius is not the only parody religion in America, but none of the others have inspired legal sanction.
Perversion, he says, applies to emotions that have nothing whatsoever to do with sex. “Weirdness ensures that your enemy has no ideas what to do next. And perversity is weirdness writ large.” Mockery, he goes on to say, is a tool of the disenfranchised, and one that most kids have learned to use by the time they get to kindergarten. It is a challenge to authority “ that demands no actual substantive rebuttal.” His point is that this is what makes mockery so powerful. It cannot be repressed without making the repressor look like a fool or a thug. “Really biting, incisive mockery, if it’s done well, is a beautiful and devastating weapon, particularly when it is driven home with a force derived from absolute, undeniable truth. Or, conversely, irrefutable falsehood.”
The next afternoon there’s an event called “Ask Dr. Hal” during which anyone can write down a question and the doctor, who bears the title of “Official Master of Church Secrets,” will answer. Someone slips him a piece of paper that says: “Would God give himself a dick so big that even he couldn’t suck it?” Dr. Hal considers this thoughtfully for a second and then replies: “Since God is infinitely plastic and can stretch into all dimensions and places, no twisting or torsion of the continuum is beyond his malignant efforts.”
Not long after this proclamation, someone approaches Stang with a message and he interrupts the show to make an announcement. It concerns Mary Magdalen, a SubGenius who has been in a custody battle with her ex-boyfriend for years over their son, now a teenager. The ex found some pictures of Mary taken at a previous X-Day, in which she is skimpily dressed and wearing a paper maché goat’s head, and he used them against her in court. The Judge was appalled. Denying that there could possibly be any humorous intent behind such an outfit, he called the Church of the SubGenius a “sex club,” branded Mary “a pervert,” and gave sole custody to the ex. That judge eventually took himself off the case and Mary appealed. The new judge seemed more reasonable but his final decision has just come in, released over the internet: sole custody has again been awarded to the ex-boyfriend.
There is a shocked silence from the audience. Stang looks horrified. This is his worst nightmare – the Church of the SubGenius, designed, by him, to be a tool of liberation, being used by those in power against its participants. After a while, when everyone has expressed their outrage and anger, the afternoon’s events wind down. Mockery and perversion are no match for the rule of law in this case, it seems.
~ ~ ~
The Church of the SubGenius is not the only parody religion in America, but none of the others have inspired legal sanction – so far. Perhaps that’s because, subversive though they may be, most other religious parodies exist more as intellectual ideas rather than lifestyles. There’s the Temple or Sect of the Invisible Pink Unicorn (IPU), for example. The IPU has been around since 1990 and is popular with atheists because she provides an easy satire of traditional religious faith: the existence (or indeed, the pinkness) of the unicorn cannot possibly be verified. It’s the same with any deity, say the atheists – it just sounds more ridiculous when you substitute the words “invisible pink unicorn” for “God” into religious statements. Over the years, the IPU has developed quite a following and you can now buy her products online – T-shirts, boxer shorts and mugs, all emblazoned with her logo and motto, “Forever Horny.”
But the idea behind Her Horniness is hardly original. Back in 1952, in an unpublished article, the philosopher Bertrand Russell asserted the existence of a “china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit” and added that “nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes.” Invisible Pink Unicorn, tiny cosmic teapot: both ways of making the same attack on theism and the idea that since the existence of God cannot be disproved, he must exist.
One other popular religious parody is Pastafarianism, or The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, invented in 2005 by an Oregon State University physics graduate, Bobby Henderson. Henderson was so outraged that the Kansas State Board of Education decided to allow the teaching of intelligent design in state schools that he wrote a letter to the board in which he states, in part:
We have evidence that a Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe. None of us, of course, were around to see it, but we have written accounts of it. We have several lengthy volumes explaining all details of His power.
Henderson posted the full letter and the outraged responses it provoked (“ it is serious offence to mock God ”) on a website, and this content was seized upon by bloggers and the media.
Joining the Church of the SubGenius is like giving fundamentalism the finger.
As a way of mocking the supposedly scientific basis of intelligent design, the Flying Spaghetti Monster certainly did His job. But though you can now buy Flying Spaghetti Monster products online, neither Pastafarianism nor the IPU have ever developed a viable life away from the internet. They are, at best, what an online marketer might call viral ideas: quickly grasped, neatly packaged and easy to spread. Jokes designed to trigger a knee-jerk cynical response – a very different thing from encouraging a skeptical take on life itself. For a parody religion to be more than a one-trick unicorn, it needs, ironically enough, to be a belief system people can live with.
~ ~ ~
There is undoubtedly a strong sense of community pervading the events at X-Day. For a start, everyone who attends must join the church – no non-members allowed. Most of the people there know each other anyway; they have been attending for years and X-Day is part of their social calendar. They travel long distances to get there: from Texas and South Carolina, Georgia and California. Everyone is friendly, everyone is open, everyone is happy to talk, despite the “pinkness” (read: normality) that my husband and I display by persistently introducing ourselves with our real, rather than our SubGenius names.
One of the most active meeting places at the site is the camp of Dr. Frop and his wife, Sister Decadence, both long-time members of the Church and close friends with Stang and his wife. Dr. Frop is so named because of his fondness for ‘frop, or “Habafropzipulops,” or, according to the official Church definition, a plant grown on the grave of a Tibetan holy man. The good doctor has the ingestion of this “herb” down to a science. He uses a big glass bong, loaded with ice cubes and sugared water, and a vaporizer that heats the pollen-laden buds of the plant just enough for the active ingredient to evaporate without burning the rest, so that what you end up inhaling is cold and sweet and incredibly potent.
On our last night, Lucas and I visit Dr. Frop’s camp and sample this technology. There is a group of other people in attendance: The Reverend Dr. Bleepo, a radio producer from Brooklyn, and his wife, The Reverend Alley Valkyrie, the Reverend Saint Alex, and a guy who goes by the name Legume and his girlfriend. We have a swirling conversation that rises to points of such perception and hilarity that I can hardly stand it. The next minute I find it hard to make sense of what everyone is saying.
We sit around a fire as it gets dark. People come and go. There’s a debate raging about rival UFO cults, and then somehow I get involved in a political discussion with Dr. Frop. He is trying to convince me that hate is an underrated emotion. “I hate lots of things, and I think I’m right to hate them,” he says. “Think of all the evil that has been done in the name of love!” He tells me that he served in Vietnam, that he went on peace rallies – but what good did it do? “I hate those fucking idiots, sending kids to Iraq, I hate small-minded bigots, I hate racists, I hate bullies ” I try to jump in to provide counter examples, just for argument’s sake, but Dr. Frop is on a roll. Pacificist, Christians, Conservatives, Liberals, Anarchists, Nihilists – no ideologue is safe from his ire.
This, then, may be the one thing that unites all the SubGeniuses: they are fanatical in their opposition to fanaticism. This may also be the darker reason for the boom in church membership. Maybe, just maybe, it’s something to do with the fact that we are living in an age of religious fervor, both at home and abroad. Consider the daily reports of Islamic suicide bombers in Iraq, the religious right on American airwaves, and the growing numbers of powerful Christian hardliners in Africa, and perhaps it’s not surprising that there is increasing interest in a humorous quasi-religion that skewers everything, even itself. Joining the Church of the SubGenius is like giving fundamentalism the finger. “We’re not teaching faith,” Stang says. “We are trying to give you the gift of disbelief. “Bob” is not the answer – but neither is anything else.”
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Nancy Rawlinson is a writer, editor, teacher and creative coach. Her work has been published in a wide variety of publications in the UK and the US. She has an MFA from Columbia and teaches creative nonfiction as part of the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshops. Nancy is a nonfiction editor at Guernica magazine.>