The Church of the SubGenius is a "parody religion" organization that satirizes religion, conspiracy theories, unidentified flying objects, and popular culture. Originally based in Dallas, Texas, the Church of the SubGenius gained prominence in the 1980s and 1990s and maintains an active presence on the Internet. In 1996 the legal entity SubGenius Foundation, Inc. was established in Cleveland, Ohio. The Foundation's president is "Reverend" Ivan Stang and the Vice President is Dr. Philo Drummond, a.k.a. Steve Wilcox. Publicly accessible cited figures from 1988 indicated a membership of 3,500, "more than 5,000" in 1990 and "close to 10,000" by 2003.
The church started with the publication of SubGenius Pamphlet #1 in 1979. It found acceptance in underground pop-culture circles and has been embraced on college campuses, in the underground music scene, and on the Internet.
According to its "mythological" origins, the Church of the SubGenius claims to have been founded in the 1950s by the "world's greatest salesman" J. R. "Bob" Dobbs. "Bob" Dobbs is depicted as a cartoon of a Ward Cleaver-like man smoking a pipe, an image originally seen in one of the many "can you draw this" ads commonly found in the back of comic books in the 1950s and 1960s.
Because of its similarities to the tenets of Discordianism, The Church of the SubGenius is often described as a syncretic offshoot of that belief. However, its members state that the organization developed on its own with the publication of SubGenius Pamphlet #1 (also known as The World Ends Tomorrow And You May Die!) by Ivan Stang and Dr. Philo Drummond. A group that formed after Stang and Drummond began mailing their first pamphlet to publishers, using such pseudonyms as "Puzzling Evidence", "Dr. Howl", "Susie the Floozie", "Palmer Vreedeez", and "Pope Sternodox", helped forward the literature to a number of underground pop-culture figures such as R. Crumb, Paul Mavrides, Harry S. Robins, the New Wave rock group Devo, and Erik Lindgren (producer and president of indie label Arf! Arf! Records in Boston), who embraced it and incorporated it into their work. Crumb's promotion of the church through his comic book series Weirdo brought many new members into the fold, including artists, musicians, and writers. Their efforts resulted in the publication of the Book of the SubGenius in 1983, followed by Three-Fisted Tales of "Bob" in 1990, Revelation X: The "Bob" Apocryphon in 1994 and The SubGenius Psychlopaedia of Slack: The Bobliographon in 2006. In the late 1980s, the video ARISE! was produced by Cordt Holland and Ivan Stang, and narrated by "Dr. Hal" (Harry S. Robins), then distributed by Polygram.
The popularization of the Internet in the mid-1990s brought a new surge of interest in the church, resulting in dozens of home-made, elaborately decorated web sites and two Usenet newsgroups, alt.slack and alt.binaries.slack. A third newsgroup, alt.binaries.multimedia.slack, was created later, in 2005. Ivan Stang currently maintains the official SubGenius home page. The church's weekly radio program, the Hour of Slack, is a staple of many college radio stations. It draws from live broadcasts by Stang, his wife Princess Wei R. Doe and voice comic "Lonesome Cowboy Dave" (comedian/musician Dave DeLuca), as well as from other SubGenius radio shows.
In 1996, Stang and Steve Bevilacqua worked together to manage the corporate entity of the church, the SubGenius Foundation Inc. Their efforts helped to bolster the church's revival through the late 1990s and early 2000s, until Bevilacqua had to retire from church management in order to support his wife, Rachel Bevilacqua. The first X-Day gathering also took place at Brushwood Folklore Center in Sherman, New York in 1996, and the annual church festival continued there until 2011, when it moved to Wisteria in Ohio.
Composer Frank Zappa said in his autobiography The Real Frank Zappa Book that he agreed with many of the beliefs of the church, but refrained from joining as a full member. Comic book author Warren Ellis has stated the influence of the church on his writings. Patrick Volkerding, the founder and maintainer of Slackware Linux, is also a SubGenius affiliate, and he has confirmed the church and "Bob" inspired the name for Slackware. Slackware Linux's mascot is a modification of Tux, the normal Linux mascot, by having Tux clench a pipe in its beak, similar to the one that "Bob", the SubGenius mascot, has.
It is claimed waggishly in church doctrine that Dobbs inspired L. Ron Hubbard to create his own cult when he remarked to him that the general public may be pink, "but their money is green" Ivan Stang also claims that in 1986, an official SubGenius ordainment for Hubbard was paid for and mailed to his address, only two weeks before the Scientology founder's death. However, Hubbard and Scientology's history goes even farther back in time than the Church of the SubGenius. The Church of the SubGenius likely used Scientology double-talk as a parodic springboard for the double-talk in the mid-1980s first edit of its groundbreaking "Arise" video and other SubGenius productions.
A variety of other SubGenius videos have subsequently been produced, all available on the official Church of the SubGenius Web site. Most use film, video, clips and still images from a variety of sources: American and Japanese science fiction movies of the 1950s, old newsreel footage, more modern TV news and cable show clips, atomic bomb test footage, old civil defense films, silent movie footage, 1950s social etiquette films, industrial films, clips from their various SubGenius events, self-created footage, and fan clips. Almost all these "found footage" clips have been heavily modified with additional post-production effects to make them legally a "new work" and are extremely brief to avoid any legal copyright complications.
Overview of philosophy
The church describes its philosophy in the following manner:
The Church Of The SubGenius is an order of Scoffers and Blasphemers, dedicated to Total Slack, delving into Mockery Science, Sadofuturistics, Megaphysics, Scatalography, Schizophreniatrics, Morealism, Sarcastrophy, Cynisacreligion, Apocolyptionomy, ESPectorationalism, Hypno-Pediatrics, Subliminalism, Satyriology, Disto-Utopianity, Sardonicology, Fascetiouism, Ridiculophagy, and Miscellatheistic Theology.
—The Book of the SubGenius, page 5
These terms, used in a manner that deliberately parodies Scientology and New Age terms, reflect the church's ideology. It portrays itself as an organization for "mutants, blasphemers, disbelievers, rebels, outcasts, hackers, freethinkers," and people who generally consider themselves outside the "mainstream" of society. The organization is widely seen as a satire that mocks organized religion, or as the church describes itself, "a cynisacreligion." A member of the church is called a "SubGenius", the plural of which is "SubGenii".
In a manner that mocks the nature of many non-profit religious organizations, the church is known for blatant appeals for money from believers and non-believers alike. The church is incorporated as a profit-making enterprise, and declares itself to be "the only religion that is proud to pay its taxes." Anyone can become an ordained SubGenius minister by paying a fee of US$35 for a lifetime membership; no other requirement is laid upon prospective members. The charge for ordination separates the church from the Universal Life Church and other paper churches that offer ordination free of charge to all comers. The Church of the SubGenius is known for a standing offer that stems from the ordainment fee: "Eternal Salvation or TRIPLE Your Money Back!" The organization claims that if an ordained SubGenius minister dies and finds himself standing at the gates of "Normal" or "Boring" Hell, he will be personally greeted by church founder J. R. "Bob" Dobbs Himself and receive a refund check for $105, along with a booklet titled "How to Enjoy Hell for Five Cents an Eternity," which costs $104.95.
The church claims that true SubGenii are not actually human but descendants of the Yeti. According to Revelation X: The 'Bob' Apocryphon (published in 1994), SubGenii are actually the mutant offspring of a forbidden sexual union that took place millions of years ago between a resident of Atlantis and a human; at that time, humans were little more than a slave race. The resulting offspring was the catalyst that led to the fall of Atlantis. SubGenii often refer to one another as "Yeti" (or yetinsyny), though this origin story is generally not well known outside of the church itself. (The term yetinsyny was appropriated from the artist Stanisław Szukalski, whose Behold! the Protong posited that Communists and other people Szukalski disliked were descendant from such unions.)
The video Arise! elaborates on the meaning of the term "SubGenius", saying:
Let's look at the word SubGenius. It does not simply mean "just below a genius." SubG intelligence level can range far, far below genius. The SubGenius does not pretend to superknowledge but to subknowledge--knowledge of the underthings, the hollow earth from whose darkness issue the Nazi Hell Creatures and other demons of the abyss. It is in contemplation of the underthings, the underwear lurking just below the clothing of existence, that the SubGenii display what genius they have. The study of this substratum, the foundation garment underlying reality, is the SubGenius's strength, for it is from this source that he or she taps the infinite resources of a force that is completely incomprehensible to humans: The Force of Slack."
Main article: J. R. "Bob" Dobbs
The central figurehead and symbol of the church is the smiling, pipe-smoking face of J. R. "Bob" Dobbs, an image based on 1950s styled clip art, and bearing a striking resemblance to 1950s comic strip character Mark Trail. (In the SubGenius film Arise, "Bob" is described at one point, quite aptly, as "A comicbook character who communicates with space aliens and worships money".) "Bob" was considered to be the best salesman of all time. The church claims that "Bob" (the quotes are included when spelling his name, supposedly as a symbolic halo around his name) founded the church after he saw a vision of JHVH-1 (or "Jehovah-1") on his homemade TV.
"Bob" was killed in San Francisco in 1984 (though former church members state this was just a publicity stunt). Since that time, he has been killed and subsequently returned from the dead many times through a process known as teledeportation. The church, however, denies any similarity between this claim and the Biblical account of Jesus' resurrection. The church guards the trademark and copyright on "Bob's" image, though his face has been used by many artistic figures, showing up on such places as albums by the rock band Sublime and George Clinton; the movie The Wizard of Speed and Time by Mike Jittlov; in the graphical character set of the Atari ST computers; printed on CDs for Slackware Linux (prior to Version 3); on the set of Pee-wee's Playhouse, in British comic 2000AD, inside the strip Robo-Hunter, and in Devo's video for the song "Love Without Anger". "Bob" made an appearance in the comic The Badger, his form having been taken by a demon who commented at one point "Do? I'm going to beat you to death with this pipe." He also made a brief appearance in Marvel Comics' Slapstick as a coffee store clerk.
At the XXX-Day Drill in July 2000, the church unveiled and adopted a new symbol called the "Dobbs Icon" (or sacred ikon), which is a stylized cross with three bars and a pipe, placed in a pattern that matches the eyes, nose, mouth, and pipe of "Bob"'s image. This symbol resembles the patriarchal cross and it is possibly a parody of both the Christian and the Scientologist cross.
Nothing is more central to "Bob" than his pipe, which is said to be filled with the mysterious substance known as habafropzipulops or "frop" which may contain either mystical, hallucinogenic, or Divine powers. The pipe may also allude to surrealist painter Rene Magritte's famous work, The Treachery of Images, which features an image of a pipe and the words "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" (This is not a pipe). According to the church, the image of "Bob" and his pipe are often seen on random objects, possibly to herald things to come or as an omen, or possibly for no reason at all.
The number 13,013 (usually seen as "13013") is the Number of "Bob", or the Mark of Dobbs.
In its January 1, 2000 issue, a Time magazine internet-based poll named J.R. "Bob" Dobbs the #1 "Phoney or Fraud" of the 20th century.
The central belief in the church is the pursuit of Slack, which generally stands for the sense of freedom, independence, and original thinking that comes when you stop worrying about personal goals. In essence, Slack is about finding satisfaction with what you have and who you are, as opposed for searching for satisfaction in accomplishment. The church states that we are all born with Original Slack, but that Slack has been stolen from us by a worldwide conspiracy of normal people, or "pinks". The church encourages originality and frowns on actions seen as pinkness, which happens when one bows down to authority and the accepted limits of society. Slack is also about doing nothing and getting what you want anyway. "Bob," being the center of the Slack plane, cannot fail; even his failures are startling successes as a result of his absurdly high Slack. Popular church phrases supporting these goals are "Give Me Slack or KILL ME!", "The SubGenius Must Have Slack" and "Fuck 'Em If They Can't Take A Joke".
The Linux distribution Slackware is named for Slack. The card game Chez Geek uses Slack to keep score; the object of the game is to accumulate Slack counters until one player wins by reaching his or her Slack Goal. One of the cards that a player can use within the game to gain Slack is the Book of the SubGenius.
Sense of humor
The church encourages humor, comedy, parody, and satire far more than most religious faiths. This belief is probably why the church is seen on one level as an elaborate joke (the church argues that if it is a joke, then it is "a very serious joke," "a joke that you can believe in," or "the greatest joke ever told"), an arguably postmodern mockery of organized religion, and a parody of controversial religious groups and cults, especially Scientology, Mormonism, evangelicalism, fundamentalism, and televangelism.
In their book Religion Online: Finding Faith on the Internet, Lorne L. Dawson and Douglas E. Cowan characterize it as a "sophisticated joke religion". Almost nothing is considered off-limits to comedy in SubGenius circles, and the group's jokes often veer into the realm of bad taste. The Book of the SubGenius says: "If you don't laugh, you didn't get it, but if you ONLY laugh, you didn't get it." Church members frequently pull practical jokes on each other, even as they are using their comedic talents to other ends. The Book of the SubGenius poses the question "Is this a joke disguised as a religion, or a religion disguised as a joke in sensible shoes?"
Church members living in the same geographic area are encouraged (though it is not mandatory) to form a group: a local club or "clench". These clenches are typically the ones who bind together in order to put on a Devival. Some of these clenches position themselves as their own religion. This is encouraged by the church, and is officially known as a schism. Ivan Stang himself has been quoted as saying, "Quit the church and start your own damn religion!" Paradoxically, one of the ways one can most fully embrace the philosophy of the Church of the SubGenius is to ultimately declare oneself to no longer be a faithful member of the church, but to instead have schismed and formed one's own heretical sect or denomination. This dynamic embodies the nature of the church as fundamentally individualistic, and antithetical to the adherence and obedience-based ways of most religions.
SubGenius gatherings, or Devivals, can be seen as a combination of religious preaching, stand-up comedy, and rock concerts. When the local members of the church hold a Devival in their area, it typically occurs at a popular nightclub, and it features SubGenius preachers such as Dr. K'taden Legume, Papa Joe Mama, Dr. Hal, Rev. Susie the Floozie, Priestess Pisces or Rev. Stang, and backed by rock bands with such names as the Swingin' Love Corpses, Doktors 4 "Bob", Saint N and Hellena Handbasket, Jehovah Hates Phred, Einstein's Secret Orchestra, The Mondo Retardo Band, The Amino Acids, and the Kings of Feedback. Devivals have been held each year as part of both the Starwood Festival and WinterStar Symposium since 1991. Attendees at Devivals are encouraged to bring money and spend it at the ever-present sales table. Some Devivals have been known to veer out of control. In 1999, overly cautious officials of the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts pressured owners of The Middle East nightclub to cancel the booked devival because of a mistaken belief that the organizers were affiliated with the Trenchcoat Mafia (an organization which was mistakenly accused of being responsible for the Columbine High School massacre).
Main article: X-Day (Church of the SubGenius)
An important SubGenius event occurred on July 5, 1998: X-Day. The church had been predicting that on this day the world would be destroyed by invading alien armies known as the X-ists (which is short for "Men from Planet X"). Only the members of the Church of the SubGenius were expected to be saved from this SubGenius version of the apocalypse, by being carried away in the spaceships of the Sex-Goddesses. When the promised cataclysm failed to manifest, Rev. Stang was tarred and feathered by his fellow SubGenii. (Some claim the "tar" was actually honey and that Stang himself bought the feathers.) Nevertheless, Stang was permitted to retain his position as church administrator, and although that day and each subsequent July 5 has passed without evidence of an alien invasion, the faithful membership still gather for the "Rupture" at an outdoor campground to herald this SubGenius holiday. The X-Day celebration took place at Brushwood Folklore Center until 2010; as of 2011 it has moved to Wisteria in Pomeroy, Ohio.
Reverend Ivan Stang has given many excuses for the failure of the Rupture to happen, such as claiming that "Bob" betrayed all SubGenii, that the scriptures were accidentally read upside down (hence the real year of the Rupture will be 8661), or that due to calendrical error or sabotage it is not yet really 1998. Some would argue that it did happen, albeit in a metaphysical and/or allegorical manner requiring greater shift of paradigm to truly understand. Others have suggested that the X-ists did visit Earth as predicted, but that the planet we know as Earth was either secretly switched with Mars sometime during or shortly after World War II, or that the X-ists left with the persuasion that mankind will do the job just as well, if not better.
X-Day is a parody of the popular Christian notion of the rapture. The various excuses for the apparent failure of the sex-goddesses to "rupture" the SubGenius faithful parody such events as the Millerite Great Disappointment, and various other occasions when Christian sects have confidently attached a date to the public return of Jesus and the consequent destruction of earth.
Reverend Stang has argued that X-Day is a religious holiday for the church, and members of the church should take the day of July 5 as vacation or holiday: "...if you can't get off the planet, at least get off from work."
Other holy days
Besides X-Day, the Church of the SubGenius has six seasons as identified in The Book (Advert, Epicacophony, Emaculation, Turnover, Passaround, and M'Moreal Day) and has also published a "Sacred Calendar of SubGenius Saints" at the end of their most recent major publication, The SubGenius Psychlopaedia of Slack: The Bobliographon. It assigns a feast day or holy day (sometimes several) to every day of the year. Many of these feast days are rather unusual.
Additionally, in the e-mails sent out by the SubGenius foundation to confirm orders made at their online store, mention is made of a holiday called "Xistlessnessmess", which falls on December 25. Furthermore, it has been asserted that "Bob" has died and been reincarnated at least 366 times throughout history and prehistory in such a way that every day is "Bob"'s birthday, and cause for celebration.