The renowned psychologist Jordan B. Peterson has, as I write, just released his new book Beyond Order. It’s causing the usual early splash you’d expect.
Most media interviews are fairly negative, not least because Peterson stands in for a certain sort of conservative adjacent thinking they dislike strongly, even if that isn’t what he represents. Those who were already pro-Peterson defend him virulently.
When he became famous through his YouTube videos a number of Christian figures started suggesting that this was an interesting man that we should listen to. Young men, a demographic that the church often feels like its losing, listen to him in their droves. Others suggested that he was associated with the Alt-Right movement and so should be avoided like the plague, that his influence on the average person on your street is overstated, and that he peddles legalism.
I’ve seen some suggestions in my circles that we should stop paying attention to him. I think that would be a mistake. He’s a phenomenally interesting man, for all he has some more unfortunate characteristics (I would fail that test too). There are some things we can learn from him.
Here are three reasons to listen, and three cautions.
Reason 1: Story
Peterson talks my language. He understands that story and metaphor are key to finding meaning in our lives. He tells young men that they need to stand up tall, pick up a sword and kill a dragon. It sounds terribly old-fashioned but its not wrong (or it not wrong in the way most people seem to think). That is part of what it means to be a man. I’d quite like to give the advice to young women too, and there’s no place at the moment in Peterson’s advice for Christ as more than the archetype of our stories.
In other words he doesn’t teach them that Jesus the dragonslayer has killed the dragon for us, or passed the Test for us. He does teach the second part that evangelicals often miss though, the “therefore go and kill some dragons”, “go and pass your Tests”, which when delivered in a framework of grace is a way to develop a life of meaning.
The comparisons to C. S. Lewis are not, in this regard, misplaced.
He knows that we are—in my words—all made of stories. He knows that the way to the good life is through the careful telling of the right stories. He gives too much credence to Jung or Campbell for my liking, but even he sees that there’s something central about the life of Jesus. He also catches the way chaos and order are weaved into the early part of Genesis in a way that I’ve never heard before (he does it wrong, for example chaos isn’t feminine in the Biblical understanding, but he reads attentively).
We aren’t good at this. We can blame various philosophical movements for the last several hundred years but we are where we are. We’ve forgotten our imaginations to the extent that we can’t feel they’ve gone. Christians should be at the forefront of regaining them. We need to tell stories.
Reason 2: The Bible
Some people think Peterson’s popularity comes from his second book, the bestselling 12 Rules for Life. Which, by the way, I thought was fine but not as exciting or controversial as it was made out to be. He was popular long before that, getting millions of YouTube views on long series of two-hour lectures through the book of Genesis. Let that sink in.
Peterson connected the Bible to a constituency that weren’t looking at it at all. Anecdotal stories tell us some of them have come through to following Jesus. None of us would have the gumption to connect to Millennials and Gen Z by simply opening up the Bible for long periods of time (and if I’m unfairly smearing you here, well done). I’m not sure we do even now. Reflecting on that would be wise, I think.
Reason 3: “Live as though Christianity was true”
Peterson tells his followers that he has resolved to live as though Christianity was real, and that they should too. Whether he personally believes that it is remains at the time of writing unclear, though the last video I watched of his (with Jonathan Pageau) would make me wonder if he does even if he himself is not ready to articulate that yet. He’s not an evangelical, his story isn’t neat, and who knows where he might land. Doing this live on the internet must be brutal.
It’s my conviction that if people genuinely try to live as though Christianity was true, they will encounter the living Christ and find their lives turned upside down. Some might quibble that there’s a problem here where utility trumps truth, which is a sign of the times. I don’t think Peterson would say follow it because its useful, he’d say that this is a better story to live.
We should say that too, and then with Tolkien assert that this story—this myth—is true.
Caution 1: “He’s a legalist”
Some accuse Peterson of being a legalist. I don’t think they’ve caught the truth of this, but I can see why they think that. He writes self-help books. They’re conservative and stern in their approach. There is no grace in what he teaches.
Sure. Why would we think there would be? It’s an odd accusation to fling at a psychologist. It’s not legalism either, teaching that salvation rests on our works. I don’t think Peterson offers anything as grand as salvation. It’s old-fashioned moralism. He’s telling people how to live.
If the way he tells them how to live is broadly in accord with what the Bible lays out as the way of human flourishing—which we could debate—then while it won’t lead to Life, it will be good for society.
The caution really is, don’t make him a gospel preacher. He isn’t one.
Caution 2: The zeitgeist
Peterson is a big deal in some corners of the internet. He breaks through a bit into the wider cultural world. Your neighbours won’t know who he is, most likely. If they do there’s a decent chance they aren’t that impressed with him.
My neighbours aren’t that interested in most things that are a big deal on Twitter. It can be worth remembering that. A bestselling book doesn’t sell as many copies as all that, and many of them won’t have been read.
However, some of your young men—especially if they are disposed towards Reddit or to a lesser extent YouTube—are probably watching him. You should have some idea what he’s telling them.
The caution is, don’t make him a bigger deal than he is.
Caution 3: The Alt-Right
Peterson is Alt-Right adjacent. He’s considered an Alt-Right figure by many. This is not entirely without merit, he rose to prominence on socially conservative issues (declaring that using preferred pronouns was lying and so shouldn’t be required by law). He serves as a gateway to more extreme views; not by his own intent, but there are studies showing that watching a reasonable intellectual like Peterson will cause YouTube to suggest steadily more extreme content to you. I’ve noticed this a little myself.
Calling him Alt-Right is a confusion typical of our age, we see the religious and paint it as political. I think Tara Isabella Burton’s analysis suggesting that he’s a gateway figure to the modern religion she calls ‘Atavism’ is probably nearer the truth. Neither do I think Peterson has done that well at avoiding becoming a figure used to ‘own the libs’.
In my opinion he’s at his most interesting when he’s not talking politics, but you get both with him.
The caution is, there is a slope here, we should try to not make it slippery.
A fascinating figure, worthy of reflection, but the advice here isn’t “go and watch Peterson”. It’s tell stories. Teach the Bible, full-throatedly. Live as though Christianity were true. Because, it is.
In Paradise perchance the eye may stray from gazing upon everlasting Day to see the day-illumined, and renew from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.
Photo: Gage Skidmore