Bob's your uncle!

The Skeptic 3.1

Not long ago something very strange found its way across the Atlantic and into my letterbox. I didn't ask for it: it just came. I had been sought out by the Church of the SubGenius.

The Church of the what? It took a little time to figure out. `God' to SubGenii (as the members of the Church are called) is the mysteriously named J.R. `Bob' Dobbs, some of whose many faces are illustrated here. But who is `Bob'? Fortunately one of the Church's tracts puts it succinctly: `Bob' is the mystic supersalesman on whose wheeling and dealing skills the fate of this universe depends!! `Bob' is He who has come to awaken us to the SLACK that has been robbed from our kind for centuries - the only intercessor between mankind and the stark fist of removal, that all-smashing force from Above which we must simultaneously placate and defy.' And what is slack? Well, if you have to ask that, then you can never truly know.

The force behind the Church, and also its Sacred Scribe, is the Reverend Ivan Stang. Stang is a non-conformist, and in a big way. What Stang has done with the Church of the SubGenius is to create his very own, very odd, and very funny, designer cult. As he's proud to admit, Stang purchased his ordination for honest cash from `Universal Life Church Inc.' of Modesto, California But he has kept his integrity. As a legally ordained minister, he can (and does) perform marriages. But he doesn't use his ordination and Church status to avoid paying tax. (Anyway, the IRS didn't take him seriously!)

Stang has taken just about every `cultish' idea and image you've ever seen, and whipped them all together into a frenzy of buzzwords, icons and gobbledygook. It's a rebellion, aimed not just against cults, obsessive beliefs and instant enlightenment operators, but also against people against cults. In Stang's world, everything goes, and anything goes, so long as it's not ... normal.

In common with many cultists, Stang is obsessed. Where he begins to differ, however, is that he knows he is obsessed, and is all the better for it. But what really sets Stang apart is that his obsessions are not with his own, but with other peoples' beliefs. The odder the people-and the weirder the ideas-then the more he likes it, the more he wants to celebrate it, and the more he wants to tell us about it. In fact, he operates his Church with the kind of enthusiasm you'd expect from a TV evangelist clutching a floppy bible, not from a somewhat off-the-wall amateur sociologist.

Stang is well qualified to mix his cocktail cult; for years he's been a mail-order junkie. He discovered that you can enter an extraordinary world of unusual ideas and beliefs-all for the price of a stamp. There are thousands of people out there, just dying to send you a leaflet about their ideas, their as- tounding discoveries, their genius, their secret revelations ... As Stang says in his book High Weirdness by Mail (Simon & Schuster, 1988), `the travelling snake-oil medicine show isn't dead-it just travels by mail.' Stang is based in the United States, but the medicine show is here in the U.K. too. For several years I sampled the world of `mail-order madness', scouring the classifieds in occult magazines. Hidden in innocent-looking listings you can find pearls of supreme strangeness. Now, with the arrival of Stang's directory, you can get serious, without the drudgery.

Stang is sincerely honest about what he does. He doesn't disguise his amusement or disgust at the delusions and strange beliefs he unearths. Behind his parody cult there is a serious mind at work. He says `the kooks are our future. The average fifth-grader these days doesn't know whether Japan is a state or a city; wonders what happens when you get to the `edge' of the United States on a map; doesn't know, and can't understand what a glacier is; and even believes the government is there to protect him! The years to come promise incredibly fertile fields for the sowing of superstition, cultism and pseudoscience; they'll grow so fast we'll wonder if there had ever really been an Age of Reason.'

Stang's view of New Age nonsense crushing rationalism dead is a pessimistic one. But suppose it happens-then those who surrender to `Bob', those who harness their SLACK, might just be ready for it.


©Toby Howard 1995

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