OK, so that’s pretty meta for a title. But why is it that Christians (and almost everybody else) love lists of ten? I write many blog posts, but often the ones that get taken up by other blogs and get the most hits are the ’10 reasons’ posts.
And it seems our American friends love lists even more than here in Australia. Compare The Gospel Coalition site in the US to the one in Australia. There’s a stronger tendency to go with lists in the US, while for the Australian site the essay style seems more popular.
I noticed this after my recent, er, 10-part series on my missional church journey. Parts 1-9 were strong narratives, yet it was part 10, which was indeed a list of 10, that got picked up by Tim Challies’ blog and a few others.
I have some concerns about our tendency to reduce our spiritual walk to lists, if that’s all we do. Such lists can be helpful, but for better or worse they’ve become commonplace these days. Just to compound the problem here are 10 reasons why we love 10 reasons:
1. The Ten Commandments. Ten just has more authority because of the Ten Commandments. It confers a weight to the list that might not otherwise be there. That has leached deep into our culture. Even our most secular post-Christian media presents ‘must do’ bucket lists, or ‘what we must never do’ scolding lists in groupings of 10.
2. Our decimal system. Though oddly not as big in the US (think miles/gallons/quarters), the decimal system of the West is central to this. It just rounds things off nicely. However, in further food for thought, the Ten Commandments are given into a Hebraic culture that valued numbers such as seven and twelve. Ten? Not so much. So the commandments didn’t carry more weight because of their number. There could have been seven or eight, or even 15 if God’s revelation had so decided. Perhaps that gives even more weight to their authenticity. It’s not like a bunch of Israelite leaders got together and came up with a list of 10 and said they were from God. A list of seven or 12 would have carried more weight.
3. Pragmatism. We like lists because it gives us something to do, a sense of achievement. That’s a concern in the Christian context. If we’re getting constant lists of 10 then it can shape our thinking that check-listing our faith or our actions is the primary way we progress in the Christian life. Once again, in the USA, which has historically been a ‘can-do’ culture, pragmatism can overshadow principle.
4. Bite-sized reading. Blogs and easy-to-read articles are the staple diet of many people, including Christians. That can be helpful to a point, but raises some concerns too. While lists of 10 can help us, they do so in the same way that a fast food burger can feed us. Once a week is OK. But as a staple diet every day the nutrient level goes down slowly but surely.
5. Time. We’re a distracted and busy culture. We want authors and thinkers to reduce their musings so that we can read it on the rush. Once again this will lack the depth we require. If our interaction with a philosophical thread is reduced to soundbites then we will assume we are all over a topic that we haven’t put much thought into at all.
6. Alain de Botton. OK, not the English philosophical populist in particular, but the populist philosophers in general, and their self-help titles. Books with easy to grasp chapter headings have the feel of lists. And they have the feel of being achievable quickly. Lists reflect this trend.
7. Loss of Biblical narrative. God gave Israel the commandments in the context of a narrative and the context of a specific life. Lists tend to subsume narratives and allow themselves to be attached to any life or story. When Christians lose the narrative of Scripture it’s easy for their faith to become based around ‘six sermons on this or that’, ’10 ideas about whatever’.
8. Someone has done the thinking for us. That’s similar to point five. The problem can be that bullet-pointed lists can sound catchy and because they sound catchy, it’s possible to assume that they are right. In other words, just like advertising, a short sharp memorable line grabs us. There’s a whole tip under that iceberg.
9. Meme/Twitter culture. Saying something smart and funny in as few words as possible carries tremendous weight in our 24-hour news cycle culture. That the 24-hour news cycle culture has been reduced to ‘trending this hour’ merely proves how little time we have to make an impression in the midst of so much noise. Yet. like with memes and tweets, a pithy saying can mask a truth or indeed purport to be the whole of the truth on a matter.
10. Couldn’t think of a tenth. But it proves my point.
Oh well, at least, as Matt Redman reminds us, we’ve got ten thousand reasons for our hearts to sing. Not twelve thousand mind you, ten thousand!
Steve has been reading, writing and reflecting ever since he can remember. His first published piece (the school year book of 1974) was his Grade 2 story about a family of mice being terrorised by a shark on the beaches of Perth. A prescient warning if ever there were one. He currently works as a pastor and church planter for Providence Church, and in his writing dabbles in a number of fields, notably theology and culture. In collaboration with Sydney writer David Cornford he is producing a novella on a misguided quest for vengeance entitled The Queensberry Rule. stephenmcalpine.com | Follow Steve on Twitter
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