If there has ever been a time when a good list is always in demand, that time is now. For a people constantly on the move, a good list can inform and inspire a wide audience on any subject from the economy to sexuality to spirituality. And who in their right mind would turn up their nose at a well-constructed list? Life is messy, complex, and unpredictable. Lists are neat, simple, and provide much-needed structure to everyday life. This article, for instance, would never see the light of day if it weren’t for the future satisfaction of checking off one more item on the list:
Blog post written? Check.
So this shouldn’t be read as a diatribe against the literary genre of lists. In fact, to make this point, this anti-list article will proceed in list form
1. Lists promise too many easy answers
One of the purposes of a well-constructed list is to gather clarity around a certain subject matter, yet when we listen to what Jesus had to say, we find that he brings up more questions than he answers. For instance, take a look at Matthew 13. Jesus had set out to tell his disciples what the life in his kingdom would look like. He chose a handful of stories that seemed to have precious little in common with one another. The kingdom of heaven, according to Jesus is about everything from a farmer who scatters his seeds to a fisherman who drags his net and catches a bunch of fish he wasn’t after in the first place.
For a world that demands clarity, Jesus’ way of hiding the truth inside of stories and parables indicates that clarity is not the goal of discipleship, let alone the means to it. And maybe by providing ourselves with easy answers, we are missing the point.
2. Life is too expansive to categorize
Did you ever sit down to write a paper in college with your thesis already in mind before you had done your research? Did you notice how your conclusions always seemed to match your assumptions? It’s the same thing that happens when you type in a question to a search engine. The algorithm helps you reach the conclusions that you were searching for, whether or not they corresponded to reality in the first place.
This is what happens when we try and categorize life into neat and orderly lists, goals, and objectives. Lo and behold, after a short time spent prioritizing our lives, certain lists emerge. But life is not so orderly, now is it? There is a wildness to truly living that cannot be contained and quantified into top-10’s and categories.
3. Lists don’t help people
Honestly, when was the last time somebody was in the depths of despair and found 5 spiritual truths to pull them out? What happened to your “top-10 reasons to stop complaining” when you lost your job? Lists are helpful to point out and solve problems we never thought we had. They are not particularly effective at helping us to respond to tragedy, let alone daily challenges of life.
Lists that promise to help us with real problems are suspect at best in coming through on their guarantees.
4. (Pretty much) Every list includes at least one “filler”
For instance, without a “filler,” this list would be titled “4 Reasons…” and you wouldn’t have read it. Let’s be real, most lists are not written because we are like Moses, looking at the hand of God writing that 10th commandment. Lists are, at best, an imperfect science.
Next time you see a list, play a game with the author. Try and guess which item(s) is(are) the filler(s). C’mon! It’ll be fun!
5. Jesus preferred stories to lists
Stories require your presence in an utterly unique way. Stories engage us in wonder, curiosity, and tend to leave us with more questions than when we started out. Stories demand participation, while lists allow you to read passively. It comes as no surprise then, that Jesus preferred to introduce his kingdom in a series of stories, rather than a list of “10 things you should know about the kingdom of heaven.”
So carry on with your lists of places to go before you die, books to read over the winter, and things to do before Friday night. Just add one more item onto your list, if you will: Learn to ignore lists and pay attention to stories.
It’ll sure feel good to check that one off!