Whatever Happened to the Church of the SubGenius?


dobbsAllegedly founded in the 1950’s by J.R. “Bob” Dobbs, the Church of the SubGenius rose to infamy with the publication of SubGenius Pamphlet #1 by Reverend Ivan Stang and Dr. Philo Drummond in 1979. Attempts to classify the organization prove tricky, as the group’s mantra resists definition–the official website claims that “A True SubGenius, however, understands EVERYTHING, INSTANTLY upon exposure to the Word or even just the Face of Dobbs”– but in general the Church mocks organized religion and encourages the subversive, the underground, and most importantly, Slack, or freedom and independent thinking. Generally regarded as a joke of an organization that satirizes Evangelism and Scientology alike, the Church has still managed to recruit thousands of members who pay a $30 lifetime membership, which calls into question whether its followers agree with the Church’s farce or have come to seriously consider its “teachings”. Pee-wee Herman and David Byrne are among the Church’s most famous members.

While the Church has enjoyed fame in since the 80’s among punks, students, and alternative groups, it has more or less faded from the limelight. In 2006, however, it gained media attention as one of its members, known as Reverend Mary Magdalen, entered a legal battle for the custody of her son. After a domestic dispute with her husband, Magdalen was apparently denied custody and declared un-fit for mothering due to her participation at Church of the SubGenius gatherings. Founder Reverend Ivan Stang jumped onboard the cause, attempting to aid Magdelen in her legal battle, but in 2007 she lost the case against her ex-husband.

A reader’s poll in Time Magazine in 2000 voted J.R. Dobbs as the #1 phony or fraud of the 20th Century, yet its members continue to revive the organization in various ways. The Hour of Slack, a weekly radio show produced by Ivan Stang that serves as a compendium of all SubGenius activities and performances, is broadcasted on FM in almost every state, and can be streamed as a podcast.

The Church also holds yearly events in preparation for the end of the world, or X-day. Apparently unshaken that the world did not end on July 5th, 1998 as they had predicted, the Church of the SubGenius has declared July 5th as the newest X-Day. To herald in the momentous occasion, the Church asks all of its members to partake in a clothing-optional weekend full of concerts and debauchery at the Brushwood Folklore Center in Sherman New York. This year’s Burning Man-esque celebration marks the 12th X-day festival and promises its participants “five days of music, beautiful naked Sex Gods and Goddesses, and PURE SLACK.”

Maddie Oatman has interviewed musicians and writers for The Rumpus. She's the research editor at Mother Jones, where she also writes. A Boulder transplant, she can often be found on her bike, skis, or cooking with vegetables, and she wrote her English thesis on a gay red-winged monster and Billy the Kid. Follow her on Twitter or read occasional musings on her blog Oats. More from this author →