A User's Guide to Parody Religions: Dudeism, Invisible Pink Unicorns, and Americhrist Ltd.

Plotting exposure, parody seeks to unveil rather than to mask, to offer truths where it finds lies, deceit, or hypocrisy. So why has religion proven particularly prone to this means of comedic put-down?

Image: The Invisible Pink Unicorn (IPU) on alt.atheism

Plotting exposure, parody seeks to unveil rather than to mask, to offer truths where it finds lies, deceit, or hypocrisy. So why has religion proven particularly prone to this means of comedic put-down?

Derived from the Ancient Greek word “parodia”, parody has long been employed as a method of subversive humor; however, according to Linda Hutcheon, its particular “ubiquity” in contemporary cultural expression has made our era “the age of parody” (A Theory of Parody. New York: Methuen, 1985. p.2). But why? And why has religion proven particularly prone to this means of comedic put-down?

Parody, alongside its distant cousin, irony is, in many respects, a defining mode of postmodernism used for reflecting suspicion and cynicism about traditional institutions, ideologies, and belief systems. Rooted in the “question authority” attitudes of '60s youth rebellion, parody came of age in the '70s and has flourished as a critical methodology ever since. Not to be confused with pastiche, intertextuality, or blank parody—all of which lack a “cutting” edge—parody is often our way of “answering back” to our elders and their traditions (Simon Dentith. Parody. New York: Routledge. p.5).

Imitation is no form of flattery in modern parody; conversely, it's a technique by which to ridicule, comment upon, and poke fun at entrenched institutions and institutional thinking. Moreover, its intentions are rarely honorable or passive; instead, it seeks to stir, incite, create dialogue, and ultimately force changes in hearts and minds. Even in its most light and innocuous manifestations—as in spoofs and lampoons—modern parody is rarely inert or innocuous.

As seen regarding the media on The Colbert Report or the workplace in The Office, pointed parody relies upon environments where conventions and codes have already been established, and audiences are fully cognizant of them. Hence, religion is particularly amenable to this type of humor and parody religions often play upon its common features by, as Simon Dentith explains, “Identifying a characteristic stylistic habit or mannerism and making it comically visible” (32). Such characteristics include a deity, a church, hierarchy of power, a holy book, and visual icons of identity. Once these features are known and recognizable, parody can then go to work pushing their portrayals into excess and absurdity, in the process subjecting the larger institution to renewed perspectives, understandings, and evaluations.

The religious are susceptible to such comic scrutiny by virtue of their often serious sense of selves and common refusal to question (or allow questioning) of rules and roles of involvement. As such, parody religions express the superiority theory of humor, whereby the purpose is to puncture pomposity and to humanize those who have become, what Henri Bergson calls, “mechanical” (“Laughter.” Trans. Wylie Sypher, in Comedy, eds. Wylie Sypher. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980. p. 84).

Critical parody hereby behaves much like satire—unmasking, exposing, and mocking—though the former might be seen as doing so through more internally engaged means. Plotting exposure, parody seeks to unveil rather than to mask, to offer truths where it finds lies, deceit, or hypocrisy.

It's notable that the first wave of parody religions arrived in the late '70s, in the wake of the mass suicides of the Jim Jones Peoples Temple cult; this was also the time when Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority was being established. Brought to broad public awareness via mass media attention, these much publicized manifestations of religious extremism set the stage for the arrival of parody faiths like The Church of the SubGenius.

The next wave came during the mid-'00s, in the midst of the Kansas School Board’s decision to allow Intelligent Design to be taught alongside evolution in science classes. This provoked the young scientist-activist, Bobby Henderson, to create Pastafarianism, otherwise known as The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Behind Henderson’s parody writing is a secular humanist philosophy, one rooted in adherence to the science and reason promoted during the Enlightenment era. It advocates on behalf of rationality and justice, defending human rights and tolerance where those are compromised. For young critics like Henderson, religion has not lived up to its stated ideals and hides behind faith whenever its motives or mores are questioned. Like many young people today, Henderson uses parody as a weapon of last resort against those who place the burden of proof for Gods on the faithless rather than the faithful.

Tired of futile debates where the religious side falls back on supernatural belief and ancient texts whenever challenged by science, reason, or logic, young parody merchants have resorted to using mock-imitation as an illustrative means of stating their case instead. Echoing the kind of dodge-and-weave methods atheists and agnostics are up against, Henderson wryly states in the “Disclaimer” of his “holy” book, The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, “Attentive readers will note numerous holes and contradictions throughout the text… These have been placed there to test the reader’s faith” (Bobby Henderson. The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. New York: Villard, 2006. p.xii).

Some recent parody religions have derived straight from pop culture phenomena and thrive by virtue of their novelty as much as their critical purposes. Movies and literature have often served as stepping-off points for fans intent on perpetuating writers’ themes on the internet in quasi-parodic ways. Some have subsequently taken on a cult-like form, such as Dudeism, based on the 1998 Coen Brothers movie, The Big Lebowski.

Just as this movie has enjoyed an intriguing afterlife in the form of annual conventions and on-line chat sites, the guru acclaim accorded to The Dude character has since spawned its own contemporary Tao-like religion. Bokononism, derived from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 satirical novel, Cat’s Cradle, has met a similar fate as fans have mock-embraced The Books of Bokonon, Vonnegut’s textual parody of The New Testament.

Science fiction has long been a genre within which religion has been questioned or re-imagined—as well as one attracting hordes of computer obsessives. Thus, it's not surprising that parody religions drawing from sci-fi’s many u/dys/topian visions and prophesies have emerged via the internet. Star Wars, for some a religion in itself, was responsible for the early '00s internet phenomenon of Jediism; likewise, the Matrix movies have inspired fans in chat groups to ponder such themes as multi-layered reality around such religion-laced imagery as “The One” and “The Path”.

For many folks around the world there is only one religion worthy of total worship: Football! Certain Argentine fans of the game clearly felt this way when they formed Iglesia Mardoniana (the Church of Maradona). Named after that nation’s (and maybe the world’s) best ever player, Diego Maradona, adherents are known to baptize themselves by slapping a football, a reference to his so-called “Hand of God” goal that put England out of the World Cup in 1986. At the time, the England manager, apparently a non-believer, called this act of creative cheating “the hand of a rascal” ("English football and the world has lost a shining light in Sir Bobby Robson" by Paul Wilson, The Guardian, 1 August 2009).

A less playful batch of parody religions has used wit to address certain philosophical problems behind religious belief. Here, Russell’s Teapot has served as an iconic precedent for others to adopt or build upon. Philosopher Bertrand Russell used this image to comment upon the unfalsifiable nature of a deity. Believers have set the terms of debate, argued Russell, such that non-believers have been obliged to prove the non-existence of God, which is impossible. Henceforth, employing the strategy of reductio ad absurdum, Russell posited an analogy, arguing that if he were to claim that a teapot orbits the sun, he could not expect others to believe this, nor could they prove him wrong.

Playing upon the arbitrary nature of deities, others have offered variants on Russell’s Teapot. J.B. Bury uses donkeys that speak English on a distant planet, Carl Sagan speaks of an invisible dragon in the garage, and Richard Dawkins calls back the Norse deity, Thor, as his arbitrary replacement for modern concepts of God.

This line of parody found a popular destination with the on-line phenomenon of the Invisible Pink Unicorn (IPU). Started on alt.atheism in 1990, IPU seconds Russell’s proposition, showing that you cannot disprove the existence of IPUs, just as you cannot any other “deity”. Explaining the paradox of its name, proponent Steve Eley jokes that although invisible, "we have faith that they are pink".

All kinds of fun and games have ensued around this parody religion, as on-line posters have offered their own personal revelations and participated in mock debates as to the visibility of IPUs. A popular contribution has been to post Biblical passages with all references to God replaced with IPU. Artist fans have also got on board, such that the IPU now has its own pink logo, though some prefer the use of totally blank images.

The IPU has even reached beyond the on-line community. In 2006, an Atheist Children’s Camp, Camp Quest, was offered in Ohio under the motto, “It’s Beyond Belief”. There, attendees were given an exercise in which they were challenged to prove that the IPU (as a metaphor of God) did not exist. The point was to show the kids that you cannot prove a negative. At the pragmatic level, the camp fostered rational thought and critical thinking, as well as teaching the children the kind of defense strategies needed in a society where the burden of proof is invariably placed upon non-believers, particularly for kids in certain school environments.

Some parody religions have been as concerned with the social practices of institutions as with faith itself. Here, religion is seen as a cultural force, one that can often perpetuate rather than combat discrimination, greed, and corruption. The Landover Baptist Church (or Americhrist Ltd.) was created in order to combat questionable practices occurring within the world of fundamentalist Christianity.

Three weeks prior to his impending graduation from Liberty University in 1989, student Chris Harper was expelled after the administration discovered that he had been satirizing the school’s procedures—as well as the conduct of its founder, Reverend Jerry Falwell—on his radio show. Refusing to go gently, Harper retaliated by creating an on-line fictional church in the fictional town of Freehold, Iowa. Whether one calls this a parody or an exposé, Harper has since crafted a rich and detailed on-line environment, in the process unmasking a religious subculture the Liberty hierarchy would have preferred be kept in-house.

Elaborate and multi-faceted, Landover Baptist Church offers the outside world insight into the goings-on at Liberty as experienced and imagined by Harper. Here, a dictator called the “Pastor” rules over all, controlling members through a system of fines, orders (called "mandatory volunteering", and threats of expulsion. As much a corporation as a church, Landover is a self-contained community (i.e., closed), complete with its own mini-mall and gun store. Its extensive holdings evoke the heyday of the televangelist era, when prosperity theology Americanized religion by marrying the gospels to laissez-faire capitalism. Often, Harper’s parody illustrations can be quite severe, such as his anecdote about the rewards given to the Baptist youths who can demonstrate the extent of their anti-Catholicism by smashing the most statues of Mary.

Still active 15 years after its establishment, Landover’s close-to-the-bone realism has been a constant source of irritation to many leaders in the fundamentalist Christian community. Apparently, too many of their followers have embraced the farcical propositions and outlandish tall-tales shared on the site, blissfully unaware that they are actually in the midst of a parody of their religion.

Stay tuned for Part Two, featuring The Church of the SubGenius and The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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