Do stay for tea and coffee: ‘We gravitate towards numbered lists. The Ten Commandments is still the most famous part of the Bible.’
If this article was on BuzzFeed, the home of internet lightweight clickbait, it would be entitled: ‘10 Reasons the Ten Commandments is the Original Biblical Listicle’. Even if it didn’t quite live up to the headline.
If you’re not familiar with BuzzFeed, you might be familiar with some of its highly shareable articles. Remember that 2015 photo of a dress that’s either black and blue or white and gold? Classic BuzzFeed. Then there are personality quizzes, cat videos and ‘listicles’, that odd portmanteau word for a list-based article. If you’re lured in by ‘15 Celebrity Feuds That Went Public’ or ‘33 Surprising Life Hacks That Will Transform Your Kitchen’, then you love a listicle like a child loves a popsicle.
Apparently BuzzFeed has overreached lately though, making the costly mistake of branching into news. Their recent serious journalism actually earned them a Pulitzer Prize for its 2021 coverage of the victimisation of the Uyghurs. But such journalism costs. BuzzFeed News gets through ten million dollars a year. When company shares went public last year, BuzzFeed underperformed by a hundred million dollars, and the news division got the blame. Shares slumped. Meanwhile their listicles get more clicks than ever.
It made me ponder, that in Christianity we too share news – good news. The best news! And alongside parables and miracles, we also love listicles. ‘10 Ways God Really Wants to Change Your Life’ is just another way of saying the Ten Commandments – and for centuries they’ve been ‘shared’ and ‘liked’ and ‘pinned’.
We gravitate towards numbered lists, nicely ordered, easy to grasp. It could help explain why the Ten Commandments is perhaps still the most famous part of the Bible. Would it be so well known if it was just ‘Some Commandments’? Would the Beatitudes be better known if they were called the Eight Beatitudes?
Like BuzzFeed, I wonder if Christianity’s bitesized lists break through to wider culture more easily than our (good) news division. The world at large may not be fully convinced yet of Jesus’ good news. But many non-believers could recite most of the Ten Commandments.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. (Panic not, animal-lovers – no elephants were harmed in the making of this metaphor.) So too can long scriptures feel more manageable when condensed to numerical lists: Ten Commandments, 12 disciples, four Gospels… We’ve even got a whole book of Numbers.
Centuries later, what did Martin Luther nail to the church door? Not ‘Some Theses’, but 95 of them, or ‘95 Things the Church Is Getting Wrong’, to put the bedrock of Protestantism into BuzzFeed language. More recently there are bestsellers like Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages, Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and Mitch Alborn’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven.
Mark Twain thought the ingredients of storytelling were ‘a good story, well told’. As Christians, we know we have the first part – the greatest story ever told. I suppose now it’s up to us to tell it well.
BuzzFeed articles and the like will remain popular until people find something better to read. So I’m reminded of Isaiah’s words: ‘How beautiful… are the feet of those who bring good news!’ That could be us, sending our news viral.
Ultimately all these numbers point to something greater, less finite, less easy to fathom: Eternity, the greatest article ever, a list without end. That sounds worth sharing.
Paul Kerensa is author of ten books. Not one of them has a number in the title, which he’s starting to think could explain a lot about their sales. Prove him wrong via all good bookshops