Recently, my family took a trip to Branson. And while I’ve always thought of Las Vegas as the “Branson of the West,” in truth, Vegas can’t really keep up. Yes, Vegas is diverse. And yes, there is glitz and glamor. But does the Vegas strip boast a statue of a giant chicken? Does it also have random statues/replicas of the following: King Kong, the Little Engine that Could, The Titanic (the big engine that couldn’t), and Ronald Reagan’s head? Sure, there may be more things to do in Sin City, but I’ll tell you one place that Branson goes all in and rakes the pot: Bible verses on t-shirts.
You’ve never seen so much religious text on incredibly thick t-shirts. We visited a local amusement park called Silver Dollar City, and the fashion was simply Heavenly. Not because it was good, mind you, but in the sense that verses about Heaven were in eternal supply. There were verses about love and mission, and, of course, plenty of verses about Jesus. Lots of versions too: John 3:16 appeared in both sleeved and sleeveless. Philippians 4:13 was aplenty—I can do all things, indeed . . . even wear this ankle-length denim skirt in the Missouri heat all day long.
The matching Bible shirts were everywhere, worn by large groups that must have been high schools, youth groups, or just very, very large families. We saw a small army of people spill outof the kind of vehicle one associates with the apocalypse with matching green Romans 12:2 verses that did not conform to the pattern of this world: 2 kids and a dog. No, there had to be about thirty of them, and a bumper sticker on the back of their van-bus literally read: “Yeah, they’re all mine!” I am not making that up.
While I was moved (and very possibly saved anew) by the copious number of verses presented, I was a little disappointed at the range. Acts 20 speaks about “the whole counsel of God,” but the denizens of the kingdom of Silver Dollar City certainly didn’t take that one to heart—or to shirt.
Like, you don’t see any Romans 3:10 folks walking around: “There is no one righteous, no not one.” Guess that one doesn’t mix that well with a funnel cake.
Or how about some measured group chooses Exodus 16:36 for their missional youth group summer trip statement: “Now an omer is the tenth part of an ephah—2023!!!!” Now that is a group you can count on to have a good time.
The verse I’d slap on a group shirt if I hated fashion and had friends would be Exodus 23:19, which reads, “Do not boil a baby goat in its mother’s milk.” I wouldn’t put the text of the verse on the shirt though—just the reference. Can you imagine people getting their phone out to Google it? As they are reading, and left wondering what style I prefer for my serial killings, I’d just glance up, smile at them like Kip from Napoleon Dynamite, and say, “Sup?” I don’t make that shirt, however, because the fear of someone more demented than me getting close to my ear and whispering, “Amen, brother.”
These shirts inspired what I think could make for a pretty fun day next time I’m in town. I’d arrive at the amusement park about a half-hour early. Then I’d just sort of scope out the groups with matching shirts. I’d find the ones that seem the coolest—maybe sporting some John 17 or something from Revelation, something hip but not weird. Then, I’d snap some pictures, front and back, of their sweet t-shirts. I’d hustle to my car, then hurtle to the nearest t-shirt shop and have an exact replica of the shirt made. I think I could do all this in an hour or so, and then the rest of the day? Boom, I’m grafting in with my new crew.
I’d just sort of sidle in with some of them when they are in line for Powder Keg or Thunderation or something. I’d eavesdrop, waiting for the perfect window. When that window opened, I’d fly through with, “Yeah, Skyler is being, like, totally sketch.”
“Huh? Who are you? Who is this guy? Aren’t you, like, 40?”
“I’m Tanner’s little bro . . .”
They’d be a little skeptical . . . but then they’d have to reckon with the shirt—the shirt, baby!
“Cool. Hey guys, it’s Tanner’s bro! Anyway, yeah, Skyler then said . . .”
It would be such a great day! We’d scream on rides and shout our faith silently with our awesome missional shirts. Then we’d board the bus and just obliterate a McDonald’s ten minutes before it closes. It would be straight fellowship. Where two or more are gathered and all that.
Aside from Scripture shirts, another strange thing I noticed in Branson is a plethora of shirts that say, “Branson, MO” on them. I wasn’t sure if there was a rule, like at concerts, where you don’t wear the shirt of the performing band to their show. There was no such hesitation here. Probably throws off concussion protocol a bit: “Randy, you fell off the log flume and are gushing blood from your head. We think you might have done damage and that brain might be leaking out your nose and ears. Tell me, quick, where are you?”
Poor Randy. He just reads one of the 97 shirts around him, likely at the very cost of his life.
I wasn’t sure that this is still a thing—the collecting of shirts and hats of places one has traveled. Growing up, I remember going to Michigan every year, and every year my parents allowing us to pick one—and only one!—shirt that said boldly: “Michigan” or “Lake Michigan.” We vacationed there for 28 years. Which means I had 28 articles of clothing that I’d wear to places like Branson that could potentially confuse poor Randy all the more.
What is especially weird is when someone brings you home a shirt from a place they’ve been . . . without you. A place you have never been. Ever.
I open the gift excitedly . . . it’s a sweatshirt! And then I read, “Vail, Colorado.” What am I possibly supposed to do with that? Can you imagine wearing it on a flight?
“Oh, Vail. Love it there! Have you gone recently?” your seatmate attempts small talk.
“Nope. Never been.”
A lull falls over row 17. He’s wondering, “Why the heck would someone wear a Vail shirt who has never been to Vail?”
You are wondering, “Why the heck did Becky set me up like this? Should I tell him about Becky’s trip to Vail? She said it was very nice.”
You can’t take the silence any longer so you offer, “Nice shirt, man. Exodus 23. Amen, brother.”
“I’m an atheist. My friend Becky gave me this shirt.”
“Dang. Well, look it up. That baby goat stuff is legit, bro.”
Branson is riddled with Branson shirts. They declare: I am here. Then later: I was there. The problem is that they aren’t that inclusive. To remedy this, we ought to open it up to other places. Like, “Bathroom.” Now that is a shirt with a universal story. “Kitchen.” We could even get more existential with it, “Childhood.”
“Oh, childhood. Loved it there. Have you gone recently?” your seatmate attempts small talk.
“It has been a few decades, but yeah, I spent about 13 years there growing up.”
“No kidding! I was there for 13 years too!”
Now we are cooking! Just regular old adult goats too!
No, you can’t find a good “Bathroom” shirt anywhere. But in Branson, on the strip, about every other store sells shirts that say, “Branson, MO.” I’m not really sure how these all stay in business. Sure, the snow globe trade probably fetches a pretty penny, and the smash-a-bunch-of-pennies-into-one-giant-penny machine has nothing but upside, but is the supply for place-specific souvenirs really a modern demand? What I realized, far too late, is that one Michigan shirt is probably a sufficient amount. So, at most, I buy two—one for me and one for Becky. And then that is it. Shows over.
Speaking of limitations, next to one of these t-shirt shops was an even more fascinating shop. It was a Trump store. Creatively, it was called “Trump Store.” It was a large shop that sold paraphernalia dedicated to a former President—flags, key chains, t-shirts, AK-47s . . . all inscribed with Donald Trump’s name or likeness. People can wear whatever they want, as far as I’m concerned. But I just wondered if it is sort of like the Michigan shirts—do they really need more than one? And we are sort of pushing toward a decade of Donald Trump being a prominent figure. Wouldn’t you think most interested folks have already stocked up on all the Trump tuxedo shirts they need by now? Can’t think there are droves of first-timers wandering into the shop thinking, Now what can I wear out-and-about that will get about half of the people around me to instantly judge and possibly hate me at first sight? Maybe some people just had extra money on the gift card and didn’t want to leave any balance or something? The repeat purchaser market just seems so very narrow.
I wonder if Vegas deals with these same issues? I thought as I plodded our van along through traffic.
Then, I drove on. Past the souvenir shop. Past the Donald Trump boutique. Past busses filled with groups donning matching shirts. Past the giant chicken. I had so many questions. So, so many. Why are we here? and Where are we going? and Is that guy who fell off the log flume gonna be all right?
I went to Branson with my family and was faced with a lot of questions. And, if I’m honest, I had a great time, but I didn’t get any answers. I did come home with the memories of being with people I love in a world I don’t understand. I guess that’s enough. Well, that and this killer Exodus 20:13 t-shirt I picked up.