[25 April 2014]
Few parody religions have captured the tenor of their times more than the Church of the SubGenius, co-created by Ivan Stang and “Dr” Philo Drummond in 1979, the same year that the Moral Majority was founded. Although the former organization is, in many respects, a parody of the latter, they both share common inspirational roots that take us back to the counter-culture days of the ‘60s.
“They call me the seeker / I’ve been searching low and high”, Roger Daltrey (of The Who) sang in 1970, capturing the underlying impulse behind much of the hippy subculture of the period. Some of these seekers found refuge in secular outposts like the Manson gang or in the kind of communes well-illustrated in Easy Rider; others embarked upon a spiritual trip that landed them in some form of religious cult or New Religious Movement (NRM). This was a time when The Beatles and their cohorts sought spiritual salvation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India, and when The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, The Unification Church (of Sun Myung Moon), The Church of Scientology, and The Family International gave hope and haven to those hippies disillusioned by their prior secular searches for meaning.
By the early ‘70s, NRMs had become a cottage industry in the US. Some seekers, tragically, followed a path to Guyana with Jim Jones, where they would ultimately succumb to his poisoned Kool-Aid. Others ventured into Evangelical denominations, finding simple solace in the literalism of a fundamentalist Christianity preached via TV by a breed of charismatic pastors. Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Jerry Falwell were all media celebrities by the time Ivan Stang offered his own parody version as comic rebuttal.
J.R. “Bob” Dobbs, a pipe-smoking everyman-looking ‘50s salesman caricature, is the prophet of the Church of the SubGenius. He also represents profit, the kind televangelists were accruing in the millions during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s by virtue of their own savvy sales techniques. However, whereas the trendy prosperity theology of the day was harnessed to the American Dream principles of hard work and commitment, Stang preached the gospel of “slack”, where leisure always trumps labor. The suggestion here was that the televangelists were hardly practicing what they preached, instead lining their own pockets by cajoling the faithful into working harder—for the church. In parody fashion, SubGenius acted likewise, brazenly celebrating its status as a “for”-profit church, selling its merchandise (books, videos, buttons, coffee mugs, T-shirts) and reinvesting the gains into a large publicity budget.
“Greed is good” was a mantra of the ‘80s, and selling became its artistic correlative. Exaggerating the kind of histrionic pleading for donations evident in Swaggart et al’s old school testifying, Stang and his gang took the SubGenius show on the road, proselytizing passionately from club stages like coked-up rock stars. The Church’s MTV-inspired Arise recruitment video from 1992 showcases a cast of charismatic devotees putting spit and vinegar into their articulation of the often convoluted SubGenius commandments. Prancing around as if possessed, these pseudo-preachers expound upon the virtues of “slack”, gluttony, and sex.
Mixed in are tidbits from The Church’s Scientology-inspired back-story that include tales of the time-traveling Dobbs, of UFOs, and of Yeti sightings. Hat-tipping to Scientology, too, these preachers rail against the conspirators out there who would deny them their faith. Partly show, partly membership drive, these shows always emphasized bottom-line interests. “To defeat the concept of money, it’s gonna take a lot of money”, proclaimed Stang, perverting the kind of us-against-them stances one could imagine coming from the mouths of many a “wealth and health” televangelist of the day. (See Slack Is Back: Quit your job! Make waste! The Church of the SubGenius has come to town! by Jeff Niesel, Scene, 06 April 2000)
By the early ‘80s, “devival” meetings had become a central feature of the Church of the SubGenius. Besides playing the rock club circuit opening for supportive (and, in some respects, likeminded) bands like GWAR and the Dead Kennedys, Stang also created “X-day” festivals, where revival meeting-style showmanship combined with Merry Pranksters-type irreverence to create a Woodstock-like celebratory spirit. Here, temporary autonomous zones were created, where a carnivalesque atmosphere encouraged attendees to dress up in costumes (or not dress at all), dance, and cavort with hedonistic unrestraint to a backdrop of performance-preaching and inspirational rock music. Outsider culture for outsider people, followers reveled in their abnormality by venting against the “normal” people, apparently guided by the principle that the weird will inherit the Earth.
The intensity and passion that supporters brought to these gatherings made it appear as if the Church had become a bone fide cult rather than the parody religion it had initially been created as. Alienated and disaffected youths found their own social club at its events, punks, post-hippies, and alternative kids gravitating to the Church as though it were a surrogate rock club. Indeed, the energy, mayhem, and abandon encouraged there made these happenings comparable to seeing a raucous rock group. And even some bands joined the parody party.
However, while celebrated members like Mark Mothersbaugh (Devo), David Byrne (Talking Heads), and Mojo Nixon were no doubt attracted to the postmodern irony of the phenomenon, many pent-up teenagers were using the Church as a “cool” place to vent. Consequently, some critics have questioned the ethics and motives of this parody religion, arguing that it often welcomes and “sanctifies” outsiders of questionable mental stability, validating their sometimes dangerous impulses in the name of religion, however farcical that faith may be.
If the Kansas School Board had known that allowing Intelligent Design (ID) as an alternative theory to evolution in science classes would, as a result, unleash the comic wrath of 24-year-old Oregon State University physics graduate Bobby Henderson, they may well have reconsidered their decision. It all started with a letter written by Henderson to the Board in January 2005 asking for “equal time” for the teaching of his Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) creation theory, allowing “One-third time for Intelligent Design, one-third time for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism, and one-third time for logical conjecture based on overwhelming observable evidence” (The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. New York: Villard, 2006. p.113).
Despite signing off as a “concerned citizen”, Henderson could hardly have been surprised when his letter, written prior to the hearings, was either ignored or dismissed by its ID-supporting recipients as the proposal passed in Kansas. One board member was certainly not amused by the young man’s satirical missive, responding curtly, “It is a serious offense to mock God”. Many outside observers were amused, though, checking out the letter (which Henderson had posted on his website).
Soon, the on-line Church of the FSM (or Pastafarianism) was up and running; since, the site has drawn millions of readers from around the world, some supportive, some contributing to the ongoing parody, and some offering hate mail, death threats, and the promise of (their) God’s retribution. Mainstream media took note, too, the New York Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Sun-Times all reprinting Henderson’s 2005 letter, using it as a symbol of the growing opposition to the ID advocacy movement.
As FSM’s “noodly appendages” reached through college campuses, the media, and the scientific community, this parody religion became an establishment in its own right. Before long, Henderson was the focus of a publisher bidding war, his “Holy” book, The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, finally landing with Villard for the ungodly advance of $80,000. Author/ creator/ prophet Henderson promised he would use these funds to build a ship (in honor of FSM’s chosen people, the pirates) and to spread the gospel with missionary zeal.
Arriving to positive critical acclaim, The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, in playful prose, explains to readers the argumentative strategies used by religions (and ID) to recruit and retain followers, as well as strategies that might be used to combat, disarm, and defend against them. It also postulates, through parody, how a religion manages to establish and validate itself within a society. Lastly, the book shows how humor can be deployed for subversive means, if also for comic relief, in the midst of the often tense, serious, and hotly-contested culture wars of our age.
Most important to Henderson, though, was showing how, nearly 100 years after the Scopes trial and many hundreds more after the Enlightenment, we could even reach such a situation as the Kansas School Board drama. In this regard, he argues that the ID community had used the strategy of relying upon the eternal verity that given a straight choice between simple belief narratives and complicated science, most citizens—in a mostly God-fearing state/nation—will align with the former.
Introductory college English classes may have warned students against the perils of fallacious reasoning, but Henderson explains that ID advocates have been expert in using methods of “card stacking” (ignoring contradictory data), ad ignorantium (asserting that something must be true if you cannot prove it false), and post hoc ergo propter hoc (falsely assuming that a later event must have been caused by a specific earlier one). Rather than assault readers with a barrage of Latin, though, Henderson uses parody illustrations of such false reasoning. Early in The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster he explains that we may know what gravity is, but we do not know the cause of it, thus, “What if it is He, pushing us down with His Noodly Appendages, that causes this force?” (p.4). As with ID, it is not necessary to prove this, only to suggest and persuade with the possibility. Henderson adds, “Not only is observable, repeatable evidence not required to get an alternative theory included in the curriculum, but simply poking holes in established theory may be enough” (p.4).
The art of parody relies upon commonly recognized conventions in the target subject—and organized religion certainly has plenty. An invisible deity, a prophet, followers/disciples, chosen people, iconic clothing, symbolic emblems, designated holidays, promises for the afterlife, and a mythical back-story are all covered by Henderson with the same romance and reverence that any other religion displays. It is only the preposterous absurdity of FSM’s equivalents that make them even recognizable as parody.
A flying spaghetti monster is the undetectable deity, his “noodly appendages” interfering invisibly in human affairs whenever He sees fit; Physics graduate Bobby Henderson is the prophet; followers, largely college students, advocate on behalf of the faith, mostly on-line but sometimes in the “real” world; Pirates are the chosen people and priests of the faith are obliged to dress in their honor—in “full Pirate regalia” (p.112); The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is the holy scripture—“Doesn’t every religion have a book?” (p.xiii); FSM has only eight commandments, each with “Thou Shalt Not” replaced by “I’d Really Rather You Didn’t”; these include “Act Like a Sanctimonious, Holier-Than-Thou Ass When Describing My Noodly Goodness” and “Use My Existence as a Means to Oppress, Subjugate, Punish, Eviscerate, and/or, You Know, Be Mean to Others” (p.77-78).
Regarding emblems, readers on Boing Boing contributed their own FSM version of the “fish” with their take on the Christian Ichthys symbol; Followers should celebrate “Pastover” by eating “copious amounts of pasta”, “Ramendan” by eating only Ramen noodles, and “International Talk Like a Pirate Day” by…well, you know what (p.123-124); Like many folks of faith, FSM offers two options for the afterlife: heaven and hell. Pastafarians, though, believe that heaven includes a beer volcano and a stripper factory, while in hell the beer is stale and the strippers have STDs (p.65); FSM’s creation myth is explained quite extensively in The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and includes explanation of how various “noodly” interventions from the FSM have made the Earth look older than it actually is (a hat-tip to the “New Earthers”). As nutty as Henderson’s “Condensed History of the World” is, it is arguably only barely more outlandish than the bizarre creation tales offered up by either Mormons or Scientologists.
Fantastically absurdist it may be, but FSM’s success as a parody religion is largely rooted in its relevance to time, place, and cultural developments. The Bush Jr. years of the early ‘00s were high times for the religious Right, who, empowered by helping to get their man into the presidency, were in blitzkrieg mode in the culture wars. “These are exciting times in holiness—politicians are crusading, nations are invading, and science is fading”, Henderson wryly observed in 2006 (The Gospel. p.xiii). “Not since the Middle Ages have we seen such open-minded science policy”(The Gospel. p.11).
Since its initial victory in the Kansas battle, the religious Right has, on many fronts, been losing the larger war. Why? Surely partly because the backlash against the ID decision in 2005 was so swift, harsh, and comprehensive, in no small part inspired and underlined by the kind of scathing humor it received at the hands of Henderson and the similarly-minded. Not only was the Kansas decision subsequently overturned two years later, but others who had been inclining down that same path, such as the school board in Polk County, Florida, also cut a hasty retreat, one member of that panel pointedly admitting, “they’ve made us the laughing stock of the world.” (See “Evolution Beats Intelligent Design in Florida” by Brandon Keim, Wired, 27 December 2007)
The legacy of FSM and other parody religions can be seen in other recent cultural developments, too. FSM’s “equal time” argument has been deployed elsewhere, such as in some public squares where FSM statues now reside alongside those representing other religions. Some advocates have since demanded equal treatment with respect to wearing religious attire as well, challenging the privileging of “listed” religions by wearing pirate regalia when applying for driver’s licenses and the like. Such prank activism has had mixed results, but it bespeaks vigilance on behalf of equal rights in the societal matters of a democracy—for conventional religious believers, for non-believers, and for flying spaghetti monster believers.