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Whenever I’m sent by my wife to the store on “milk & bread” runs, there’s one rule I follow that keeps me from endlessly wandering the fluorescent freezer-aisled jungle: if we need more than three items, I must make a list.  I’m unsure of the average human limits (five items, six?), but three is the limit of items that my meager brain can remember.

Lists save us from ourselves.  In my case, they save me from bringing home ten boxes of Coco Puffs just because they’re on sale (who knows, we might need them...). In a fascinating 2009 interview with Der Speigel, Italian semiotician Umberto Eco explains that lists are the basis of culture (ht: LifeHacker):

The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries.

Indeed. Whether for making sense of infinity, the grocery store, or one’s wishes, lists do give our lives a sense of order.  Christians, of course, know this well, as the Bible is brimming with lists:

  • There’s the obvious Ten Commandments (perhaps the most-referenced list in the history of Western civilization), which helps to bring order to our ethics.

  • The genealogies of the Old Testament display God’s people’s heritage as well as our own temporal natures.

  • There is even in the Bible the abuse of lists —- think of David’s sinful census (2 Samuel 24 & 1 Chronicles 21)

  • The Christmas story begins with a list that has nothing to do with wishes or shopping (see Matthew 1), but has everything to do with showing that from the beginning there was order, and Jesus was no mistake.

  • Some lists were even apparently too big a project for the biblical writers to take on, as we see at the end of the book of John, where we find that “...there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”  (John 21:25, ESV)

This list (aha!) could go on and on, but one gets the the idea. Eco observes that “we like lists because we don’t want to die.” This may be true, but the Bible’s use of lists is more positive in that its lists show us how to truly live —- lists we should definitely check twice.

More on: Culture

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