Jordan Peterson has become wildly popular. His YouTube channel has nearly 40 million views. And he has recently gone on a successful book tour across the Western world with much fanfare.
So why is he so popular? David Brooks argues that prior generations and institutions have failed young men and Peterson is filling the gap. He writes, “Parents, universities and the elders of society have utterly failed to give many young men realistic and demanding practical wisdom on how to live. Peterson has filled the gap.”
And yet: if young men of the world have been failed by prior generations and institutions, would the same be true about young men in the church? While it’s impossible to give a definitive answer, the ever-growing contingent of young, Christian men who are following Peterson anecdotally suggests that the answer is, “Yes.”
In light of this, should Christians listen to Peterson? Is he filling the gap that families and churches have failed to fill (I am not claiming this but merely asking the question)?
What Do Christians Think of Peterson?
If social media can give us a sense of someone’s influence, then we can safely say that many Christians follow Peterson. And we probably all know someone or at least have heard of someone who appreciates Peterson and is a Christian.
And Christians are now starting to publicly discuss Peterson. For example, Louis Dizon outlines four themes that he discovered in Peterson’s work, many of which he finds agreeable to Christianity. Alastair argues that Jordan Peterson can teach pastors to communicate better. And on January 26th, 2018, Peterson spoke at Wycliffe College, the Protestant wing of the University of Toronto.
Christians, thus far, appear to like Peterson.
What Is Peterson Saying?
One thing seems clear: Peterson advocates that all people should pursue virtue and avoid seeing themselves as victims. Life is suffering, and we ought to accept that and pursue what is good and worthwhile. In short, he is giving a robust vision of human flourishing to young people, especially young men.
Here Is What We Should Be Concerned about:
Being. Peterson argues that Being is central to life, but this doesn’t include the Transcendent Being we know as the Triune God. So while some of his language overlaps with how we understand reality, there’s a fundamental difference. We confess that God is Father, Son, and Spirit. He does not.
Heroism. When it comes to practical living, Peterson understands life as a heroic pursuit of meaning despite Being (the entirety of our lived experience which includes suffering). And to some degree, he is right. Apart from outside intervention, we live our lives enslaved to the fear of death (Heb 2:14-15).
To avoid facing this fear, we find meaning by living out a heroic myth—we pursue excellence at work, we try to get better day-by-day, we work 80 hours a week to prove ourselves, we gain more and more followers on Instagram, and so on. And yet this is an expression of being is life long slavery to death, the realm of Satan (Heb 2:14).*
Christ’s incarnation and all that he did (e.g., the resurrection) frees us from this slavery to death, from this pursuit of heroic meaning. We are free from the dominion of principalities and powers; we’re their worst enemies (Eph 6:12). We’ve no compulsion (slavery) to pursue excellence at the cost of our family and church.
Peterson, therefore, rightly affirms that life is a heroic pursuit of meaning despite suffering, but he has yet to accept the next step: Christ sets us free from this pursuit, because the pursuit of meaning (defined in this way) is really a denial of death.
Order. Peterson argues, thirdly, that life is suffering and we ought to bring order to chaos, to find meaning within Being and make the best of it. But this is essentially a hopeless or a non-eschatological view of humanity. Christianity, in contrast, teaches a deeply eschatological view of hope. We suffer for the joy set before us.
Competition. Next, Peterson advocates competitively succeeding for the benefit of self and society. So, certain traits like compassion or kindness may not always bring the greatest benefit in Peterson’s paradigm. And yet: Christianity teaches that certain virtuous traits are good and may, in fact, lead to bad results (you will suffer for my namesake, says Jesus).
Bible. Lastly, Peterson reads the Bible by divesting it of its historical significance. Instead, he excavates the archetypal truth in the biblical stories that he is studying. For example, Romans 6:23 (the wages of death is sin) is, for Peterson, about failing to prepare and so dying (12 Rules for Life, 157). In contrast, Christians understand sin to be a moral failure that offends God, which results in death (the wages of sin are death).
So should we listen to Jordan Peterson? Only if we listen to him critically, discerning what is good and what is not, what is wheat and what is chaff.
*I owe these insights to Richard Beck’s The Slavery of Death.
Jenn E says
I find the most heart breaking thing about Jordan Peterson is that he is so close to the gospel and yet misses it so completely. He speaks (some) truth that resonates with Christians because he has an almost biblical worldview. I enjoy listening to him speak and appreciate many of his insights, but without Christ it is all empty! How can someone understand the capacity of human depravity, as Peterson seems to, and not be awestruck by the wonder of a God who would crush His own Son to save that wretched human.
For now, I’ll keep listening, critically, and with discernment.
Great perspective! Yes, he definitely overlaps at certain points with the Christian faith. And it’s valuable to learn from him in these categories. But in others … well, I wouldn’t follow him.
Jordan speaks from his intellect and experience, and we have no way of telling, except from the fruit of his work, if his mind has been touched by the power of God’s Holy Spirit to include the access that Christ’s crucifixion gave us to His spiritual dimension.
Many comments he makes support, or are supported by, scripture, but in interviews he always avoids ceding intellectual authority to the spiritual dimension by psychological or philosophical definitions or theories, so if it is not the Holy Spirit speaking through him he will eventually reach the end of his intellectual potential because that will be all he has to draw from.
For those who do not have Christ and the Holy spirit interpreting his wisdom he is well worth listening to simply because he points people at the existence of the spiritual dimension which he admits has deeper resources to draw on.
Very nice article; well thought out and articulate.
One thing I would say is that Peterson does a great job articulating the need to speak truthfully in whatever situation, and to be careful with the words one speaks. He also highlights the fact that truth is not to be fiddled with but must be defended. As a Christian who can become discouraged and willing to ‘pick my battles’, it is a message that brings encouragement, as sometimes it seems no one thinks the way I do (when in reality people do but are too scared to speak up).
I will also add this: his commentary on the archetypal hero is so close! It is true that we all long for the hero motif. It has been a common theme in literature and in legend throughout humanity (think of Hercules or King Arthur, or even Harry Potter and Maximus from Gladiator), but what he fails to see is that there is a part of us that longs for that hero, and that perhaps this is all imprinted on us to seek the the hero in Christ! (Similar to Aslan telling Lucy that he is in her world, but goes by a different name). If Christianity has lost is wonder it is because we have not shed light on the noble God/man that plumbed the depths and redeemed himself a people.
Peterson incorrectly tries to get us to become the hero, to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps as it were. Yes it great for getting out of self-pity, and to be responsible adults and not infantile, but the real truth is that the hero is Christ, and we are meant to follow and be like him. It is he who pulls us out, and gives lasting meaning and joy.
Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. You make a great point: he does encourage us to speak truthfully. And for that, I am grateful. We need more truth!
And your comments about seeking a hero are welcome—love the reference to Narnia. I like how you connected Peterson’s view of making us a hero in contrast to Christianity’s view where Christ is our hero. Love it!
Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
I think your analysis is incomplete without a consideration of Peterson’s discussion of the logos. It has helped me to understand that language is one of (if not the) most significant qualities as Image-Bearers.
Thanks for this. Can you explain a bit more about how his discussion on the logos helped you?
Aned Koebsch says
I enjoy listening to Peterson, but I can find myself being tempted to act in my own strength forgetting that Jesus wants to act in my life and that if He doesn’t build, I build in vain. Something to be mindful of. Keep my eyes on Jesus and a constant awareness that it is all by grace. Thank yob for your article.