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  • Aarik Danielsen

Thumbing Through ‘Jesus Merch’ with the Poets

When you work retail, even a minor protest feels like radical poetry-in-motion. Especially if you clock in to serve the god of God-stuff.

Manning the music section in a Christian bookstore for more than a year of my twenties, I chafed against the job at least two ways. Quite literally, wearing the required shirt-and-tie; and against the sanitized soul we were selling.

With shirt-sleeves rolled up and disheveled hair—relative to the Christian marketplace—a co-worker and I reclaimed a few square inches of the department for ourselves. We broadcast Tooth and Nail bands like divine interruptions from overhead speakers; each spin of a Mae or Anberlin record canceled out a play of “You Raise Me Up,” we calculated.

Smugly fixing my face, I (poorly) rolled Christian T-shirts in the back corner. Families handled the merchandise, oblivious to my efforts at making order from chaos. Christians whose traditions spurn icons fawned over wearables mimicking the slogans of beer commercials and video games. They might be in the shirt, but not of it.

“Hailey will love this one,” they’d say.

“Maybe you should go over to the book department and buy Hailey some C.S. Lewis,” I muttered under my breath. Or at least wanted to mutter, my judgments never rising louder than noisy thoughts.

We should always shop with the poets at our side, Megan McDermott reminds us in her new collection “Jesus Merch,” a riotous, surprisingly moving contemplation of what we buy and sell in God’s name.

Poets, like jazz musicians, operate off and around the beat, examining convention from oft-ignored angles. In this fashion, McDermott proves a necessary guide, illustrating how Christian goods and services blur, beset, even bruise our faith—and sometimes arouse alternative righteousness.

A poet and Episcopal priest living in New England, she creates here in light of Christian curios from early and modern eras: Oriental Trading trinkets, goods found on Etsy and Ebay, Georgian and Victorian games preserved by the collective will of curators and cultural historians.

Subversive yet somehow applying a light, benevolent touch, these poems illuminate the degrees of drift felt whenever we braid capitalist and Christian liturgies.

Subversive yet somehow applying a light, benevolent touch, these poems illuminate the degrees of drift felt whenever we braid capitalist and Christian liturgies. Product lines lock in our every theological flutter, converting them into something like gospel; we shave the corners off spiritual mystery to satisfy simplistic branding.

Gently, the poet recoils upon encountering a Bible board game whose name sets a trademark behind the word glory.

“But what does it mean for / the glory you enter to be trademarked? / Everything in glory a franchise, / logo-emblazoned?” McDermott writes.

“Jesus Has a Pizza My Heart Notepads—$7.19” questions a devotion fractured by plays toward the cute and clever: “I get the pun, but / aren’t we meant to give the whole pie?”

Games inherently need to end, McDermott acknowledges, but their finish lines leave us wanting. One, based on Jonah’s story, treats Nineveh as a destination, “though that is where / the real trouble begins. / Where you get enveloped / by existential angst / rather than whale stomach.”

Another, pointed toward the nativity, forms a microcosm of our movement through the world: “There are whole theological / systems trying to answer what it means / for someone to make it to Jesus,” McDermott observes.

Moving our game pieces beyond fabricated boards, to exercise and enflesh imagination, leads us back into the beautiful, uncertain heart of God’s story. The poet models a practice resembling midrash, language liberated to complete unfinished creeds in ways marketing never could.

Playing with an “Inflatable Construction VBS Wrecking Ball,” McDermott keeps company with songwriters like Jason Isbell and Jill Phillips, allowing that God might crash through our lives yet denying any “glee” to the prospect.

“An honest prayer would find me / letting out the wrecking ball’s air, / honoring anyone whose faith / became examining horizons, / waiting for judgment / to swing into sight,” she writes.

In “Noah’s Ark Twisty Puzzles,” McDermott envisions something beyond binary salvation or devastation, twisting two-by-two animals in appeal, asking “God that somehow this violence, / despite sense, might align into cheeriness, / something as cute as this.”

Incidental definitions arise while handling toys and trinkets, a systematic theology never taking itself too seriously. Perhaps angels greet us with enveloping arms and Velcro hands, one poem posits; while “Emoji Angel Necklaces—$4.37” implores us not to assign their “otherworldliness” to “the angelic cutting / room floor.”

“Prayer is a reaching in, / followed by more reaching,” a poem suggests before another fills in the picture, describing prayer as an act of cozying up to “the blaze ... to the heat that centers / and generates.”

We are not bound by mass-marketed goodness or cheap grace. Coming to Jesus like children, we also need to play with the box.

McDermott chips away at a canon created all too casually, yet experienced as real weight pressing down upon real lives. A line of posters asks “Are you Mary or Martha?” when “neither intended / to become a paradigm.”

The future is female, but not necessarily Marian by nature, she writes, answering a Bible verse game from the 1950s. Yes, Mary brought forth a son; this is the right answer upon drawing Matthew 1:21. But what else lived within her reach—within every woman’s reach?

“A novel. / A poetry collection. / A degree / in biochemistry. / A perfect cartwheel. / A vegan dinner. / A petition / with a thousand signatures.”

“What fills the blank / is enough to cast shadow / on any other potential be

aring,” McDermott writes.

A true and faithful spirit of play is accompanied by holy possibility, the poet wants readers to see. Cards bearing the rules of the game shouldn’t define how we engage with God and neighbor or limit us to the contents of a cardboard box. We are not bound by mass-marketed goodness or cheap grace. Coming to Jesus like children, we also need to play with the box.

Inherent to “Jesus Merch,” the question of what we label Christian. McDermott would betray her project with an airtight answer; but her stanzas add up to a sermon, words like beauty, craft, imagination, liberation sounding through the message, leading us toward the shape of something.

Funny as they are, these poems never mock or punch down but unfurl with kindness. If you approached McDermott during communion clutching Keep Jesus In Your Heart Worry Stones like prayer beads, you sense she would offer blessing, then show you a more excellent way.

“Christian” merchandise will never satisfy. We live with questions and desires, as creatures who seek and pine. But these items might expose what is unformed and unfulfilled in us, might send us running into the heart of a story that brings satisfaction enough.

Our treasures say something about the stations of our hearts; our tchotchkes, McDermott suggests in “Jesus Merch,” reveal just how big or small we make God out to be.


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