No, this is not some new Charlie Kauffman movie that folds in on itself, creating a perpetual feedback loop. I’m serious; Christians love Top 10 Lists.
No wonder Moses did only 10 commandments.
I noticed this recently when all of the top three most popular articles on Sojo.net at the time were lists of this kind. So I went back and did a search of my own personal blog archive. Every one of the most popular pieces started with “10 Reasons,” or “Seven Things” or the like.
Are Christians obsessed with lists? What’s the deal?
I talked to a publisher years ago who told me that the key to a successful theology book was to include something akin to “six easy steps” in the title. I never took them up on that advice, but he knew what he was talking about. So after expending a little grey matter on the issue, I came up with this list of reasons why I think Christians love these kinds of lists:
#1. We don’t want to have to think too hard: Now, before you fire up your keyboard and rattle off a protest email, this is a broader truism across our entire culture. There’s a reason why People Magazine has a bazillion more subscribers than The New Yorker, and why the folks on “Jersey Shore” have a career at all. In publishing, the K.I.S.S. method (Keep It Simple, Stupid) is a cardinal rule in building an audience. It’s just that few people are dumb enough (like me) to actually say it out loud.
#2. We’re in a hurry: The average attention span is shorter than…hey, look! Something shiny! But really, we’re a perpetually distracted lot. And it’s no surprise, when we consider we’re submitted to more ad impressions today in a month than any generation before us ever saw in an entire lifetime. We have all these devices to make our lives easier, but what it’s actually done is raise the bar of expected performance. Who has time for detail? Give me the quick and dirty version, and if I need to know more, I’ll find it later.
#3. We want to connect: In an article – never mind a whole book – we need to have some level of buy-in with the ideas offered to stay interested. When a piece is entirely focused on explicating one main point, it’s an all-or-nothing deal. You either agree or disagree; love it or hate it. At least with a list, you’re likely to find something you can relate to. Which brings me to my next reason…
#4. We’re narcissists: We love to see ourselves in the things we read. There’s a real feeling of affirmation when we read something and can say, “Hey, that’s me! This writer gets who I am.” And with a broader list, we’re not only more likely to find ourselves somewhere in it; we’re also more likely to see our friends in it and share it with them.
#5. We long for someone to interpret our lives: This also goes along with the two directly above, but goes to a deeper part of the human condition. We crave understanding of why we are who we are, and why we do what we do. Lists are clear, concise, easy-to-remember attempts break down life experience into digestible pieces.
#6. We feel smarter after reading lists: We may not remember everything on a top ten list we read, but it’s likely that at least a few will stick with us. So the next time someone says, “Why is it that Christians speak in so many clichés?” You’ll have a handful of answers at the ready (if you’ve read my series of articles on Christian Cliches, that is).
#7. We love to have something to talk about: This kind of goes hand-in-hand with feeling smarter. I love when I’m in a group of people and I get to pull out my favorite phrase: “That reminds me of a radio piece/article/book…” We feel informed, plugged in, a part of the inner circle. And lists are easy to remember and cover a broad range of things, so in reading lists, we’re packing our social and intellectual magazines with powerful ammunition.
#8. Lists are progressive: No, I don’t mean this in the conservative/liberal sense. I mean that lists start one place, end up another, and the whole time, we know where they’re going. There’s anticipation and predictable payoff. As a writer, when you have those two things built into an article before you even start, it’s hard to resist.
#9. Lists offer order: In a world where so many boundaries are blurred and so much relativism abounds, it is comforting to know what to expect. Lists never let us down in that regard.
#10. We love the number 10: No joke, there is actual psychology to support the appeal of lists of ten, rather than some other number. It seems substantial enough, but not so long as to be intimidating. The entire numerical system we use is based on our anatomy (fingers, toes), and so there’s something very reassuring about lists that reflect something inherent in our nature.
So yeah, Moses was no dummy coming up with 10 Commandments instead of nine or 11.
(And speaking from personal experience, there was no end to the complaints when my final Christian Cliché article only had nine in the list.) Outrageous!
For more lists from Christian, see his popular series on Christian cliches:
- Ten Cliches Christians Should Never Use
- Ten More Cliches Christians Should Avoid
- Nine (Final) Christian Cliches to Avoid
- Ten Antidotes to Christian Cliches
Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He is Director if Church Growth and Development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of "Banned Questions About The Bible" and "Banned Questions About Jesus." His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called "PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date."
Ten Commandments Mosaic. Image via Zvonimir Atletic / Shutterstock