5 Lessons Jordan Peterson Has Taught the Church

5 Lessons Jordan Peterson Has Taught the Church February 4, 2019

Image credit: Jonathan Castellino. Used by permission.

A year ago, I had no idea who Jordan Peterson was. Like many people, I got my first inkling after That Debate went viral. I was entertained, but I didn’t understand what I was watching. If you had told me then that this Canadian psychology professor was embarked on nothing less than a decades-long quest to rescue Western Civilization from the pit of nihilistic despair, I would have assumed you were joking. But Jordan Peterson, it seems, was not.

As I watched Peterson’s status rocket rise, it became a social experiment in itself to watch how Christians reacted to it all. It seemed that they either really, really liked Peterson or really, really did not like him. There were some enthusiastically confused Christians who tried to “claim” Peterson as One of Us. There were other Christians who made it their job to write ponderous blogs and articles on why Peterson was definitely NOT one of us and in fact was A Threat to the Church. There were still other Christians who sniffed at Peterson’s “tone” and made it clear they were far too cool for school to bother digging deeper than the occasional New York Times op-ed. (On Twitter, I saw one such young pastor-in-training groaning that he might have to read or listen to Peterson in order to relate to the college students he was ministering to. A fate worse than death, apparently.)

Fortunately, some Christian engagements were balanced and thoughtful. A few I especially enjoyed included Andrew Wilson’s clever early review of 12 Rules here, Owen Strachan’s late review here, Bishop Barron’s Catholic perspective here, Neil Shenvi’s blog series here, David George Moore’s thoughts at Mere Orthodoxy here, and Alastair Roberts’s always insightful and cutting-edge blogs (gateway here). Wyatt Graham from The Gospel Coalition in Canada also guided Christianity Today towards a better than average pop-level radio discussion of Peterson’s work here. Meanwhile, the US Gospel Coalition put up this thoughtful but suspicious review by Joe Carter, warning people that Peterson could be “dangerous,” a humanist pied piper leading people astray. At the time I thought Carter was misreading the tea leaves as far as which direction the traffic was actually going in Peterson’s wake, and I think the year has borne me out.

Most of these takes were necessarily limited in scope. People have generally had only enough bandwidth to form at best a low-resolution picture of the Peterson phenomenon, even when it’s a positive one. It’s only thanks to the luxury of free time that I’ve been able to join the conversation myself in the depth that I have. (You can read some of my thoughts here or here, the former an analysis of his debate with Sam Harris that people seemed to find helpful, the latter a reflection on his views of the Resurrection that closes with a takeaway from my own brief personal encounter with the man. I will also insert a plug for a forthcoming essay collection from Lexham Press tentatively titled Understanding Jordan Peterson: A Critical Analysis, which will feature contributions from me, Alastair Roberts, Bruce Ashford and Hunter Baker inter alia.)

A key exception is YouTube pastor (and IRL pastor) Paul VanderKlay, who’s been providing his own California brand of freewheeling in-depth commentary on All Things Peterson, Intellectual Dark Web, and more since 2017. While I don’t always agree with Paul, he’s attained a level of understanding that the bite-sized book reviews and quick takes I’ve seen can’t touch. His channel is valuable not only for his own commentary, but as a repository of conversations with Peterson fans from all nationalities and walks of life who are wrestling with life’s biggest questions. It would behoove pastors to set aside some time and just listen to a few of these conversations (here’s my favorite, with a young volunteer fireman in the Netherlands who’s been binge-reading C. S. Lewis). As a pastoral discussion prompt, I recommend this conversation with UK evangelist Glen Scrivener, where the two pastors compare notes about the phenomenon on each side of the Atlantic. Both Paul and Glen are among the few people I know who have recognized this cultural moment for what it is: the kind of opportunity the Church gets handed once in a blue moon.

It is a myth that all of Peterson’s fans are young men, angry or otherwise. (In fact, young couples are frequently seen at his lectures. One among many overlooked aspects of Peterson’s work is his desire to encourage and strengthen marriages.) However, young men—particularly quirky, introverted, intellectually curious young men—do form a large percentage of his base. It hasn’t escaped people’s notice that this is precisely the demographic the Church has not been reaching, or worse, has been losing. Yet VanderKlay has said in interviews that he “could not have asked for a better men’s ministry” than the influx of men he has been regularly meeting to discuss Peterson’s work and its religious connotations. Men who would never attend a Bible study are suddenly beating down Paul’s virtual and real-life door to have conversations about God, Jesus and the Bible. Some of them are recovering New Atheists. Some of them grew up in the Church, drifted away, and are now wandering back across the Petersonian bridge, looking for conversation partners on the way. A few have confided to me that they have converted, or are in the process of weighing conversion very seriously.

On the one hand, this is tremendously encouraging. To use a bit of old-timey language, it would seem that the Spirit is “doing a work” through Jordan Peterson, whether Jordan Peterson realizes it or not (he seems only vaguely aware that this particular development is happening around him and reacts bemusedly when people mention it to him). So why has the Church been slow to recognize it? Many factors are at work, but VanderKlay suggests that there is a hesitance to confront the weaknesses Peterson might have exposed within the Church itself. To welcome the people who are only now walking through the door is to ask potentially difficult questions about why they weren’t coming before—or, more painful, why they left. Is Peterson getting something right that the Church has been getting wrong? It’s easy to run down a list of things Jordan Peterson could learn from the Church. But could the Church learn something from Jordan Peterson?

Bearing in mind that The Church is not a monolith, and thus any attempt to answer these questions will over-simplify, I think the answer is yes. I didn’t come up with twelve rules, but here are five.

1. The Church must authentically meet men’s emotional needs.

It is well known that church attendance is increasingly skewing feminine. One factor in play is that many churches place a premium on emotional displays and language—from the worship style, to the small groups, to the in-house jargon. This creates an awkward atmosphere for men who are uncomfortable whipping themselves up into an emotional state or oversharing private thoughts. Meanwhile, to borrow a quote from Will Willimon, too many of our pastors and priests are “quivering masses of availability,” wearing bleeding hearts on their sleeve but unable to speak into men’s lives with a strong and authoritative masculine voice.

Into this vacuum, Peterson speaks with a voice that is at once authoritative and encouraging to men. He offers tough love that tells men they aren’t living up to their potential, without swinging to the other extreme and shaming them for it. He praises and exemplifies distinctively masculine virtues. And crucially, these virtues do not exclude emotion. Indeed, Peterson himself frequently bursts into tears on camera (those are three separate links—watch the first if you just watch one). So wherein lies the difference? One word: authenticity. Where churches manufacture emotion, Peterson allows it to take him by surprise. He teaches men how to weep, without telling them when to weep.

Men are not unemotional creatures. They have deep feelings and deep emotional needs. Churches that traffic in shallow emotionalism as a substitute for authentic emotion will not meet this need.

2. The Church must satisfy the intellectually curious.

Pastors are teachers. As a teacher myself, I understand the delicate balancing act of trying to keep as many of your students engaged as possible. To this end, sermons and Bible studies tend to cast a wide net. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this. But the trade-off is that you will lose some of your students. In their concern to make sure everyone can keep up, churches need to not lose sight of those who are, to be blunt, bored to tears. Not bored because the music isn’t loud enough, or the pastor isn’t dropping enough pop-culture references, but bored because they are not being given an intellectual challenge.

As a lover of what the academy used to be who laments what it has become, Peterson brings a fire in his belly for educating young minds. He displays a dizzying breadth of knowledge in his lectures, darting from Dostoeyvsky to Milton to Solzhenitsyn to the Bible in the space of minutes. Of course, he’s also steeped in deeply flawed thinkers like Darwin and Jung, but this isn’t the space to go into a critique. The point is that one lecture series by Peterson is liable to give a young person more bona fide humanities education than four years of college. And while some pastors are rolling out Marvel-themed sermon series, Peterson is deeply pondering the stories of the Fall, Cain and Abel, Moses and the Law, Jacob wrestling with God.

The Bible says we are to love God not only with our hearts but with our minds. Church should equip us to do both. The intellectually hungry should not go away unfed. Bible studies should not offer milk when people are silently begging for meat. Pastors should be well-read, not only in theology but in great literature, in poetry, in history. Highly educated church members with the gift of teaching should be connected with young people craving what their anemic public educations are not giving them. Knowledge should be valued not only as a means to an end, but as an end in itself.

Lest anyone think I’m implying only men can be intellectually bored, I assure you I am not. I have female friends who would much rather attend a Jordan Peterson lecture than attend a Women’s Conference. In fact, they would probably rather stay home and watch paint dry than attend a Women’s Conference. Such women exist. They walk among you. And they are bored.

3. The Church must not be afraid of questions.

Some of my critiques so far have been leveled at shallow church culture. But other churches take their faith very seriously indeed, meditating deeply on the Word and working hard to instill biblical principles in their youth. This is a welcome counter-balance to churches that ceased being serious houses on serious earth long ago. Yet church communities like this have their own potential pitfall: distrust of questions. Children are raised to affirm highly specific doctrinal package deals that go well beyond “mere Christianity,” every tenet of which is assigned the exact same weighting in the grand scheme. It’s not always well received when those children get into their teens and begin to have another look at the package. When someone I know approached a prominent evangelical figurehead whom I won’t name with a textual question (“asking for a friend”), the response was “Well, your friend must just be looking for an excuse to lose his faith.”

I consider myself very conservative. But exchanges like the one I just quoted are not unique, and they are a big reason why young people are walking away from our churches and never coming back. Can young people use intellectual doubts as an excuse for simple rebellion? Yes. But sometimes they genuinely want answers. If our first reaction when people ask honest questions is to attack their motives, it’s no wonder that they will look for those answers elsewhere.

One frequent refrain I hear from Peterson fans is that he is helping them to put “science and religion” together, in a way they believe Christians are incapable of doing. Again, this isn’t the place to discuss whether his Jungian brand of evolutionary psychology actually coheres (though, spoilers, it doesn’t). But what I’ve increasingly realized is that to the extent evangelical churches address creation versus evolution at all, they largely do so from a Young Earth Creationist perspective. This is by far the most common alternative to the complete acceptance of evolutionary theory that one will find in mainline churches. Very few Christian young people are raised with a savvy, philosophically tough-minded view of the debate that will actually equip them to push back on the evolutionary paradigm without clinging to a Young Earth paradigm. When their church leaders teach them this is all or nothing, they will believe them. And when their college professors also tell them this is all or nothing, they will believe them, too.

4. The Church must not be afraid of the dark.

Peterson doesn’t like to claim certainty about much of anything, but if he has an axiom, it would be his oft-repeated mantra that “Life is suffering.” (William Goldman, is that you?) He tells his listeners that no matter who they encounter, it’s a good bet that person is working through his own tragedy. His lectures are peppered with harrowing tales from his clinical experience of shattered, damaged people, some of whom he could help and some of whom he couldn’t. He writes and speaks often about walking his own daughter through the agonies of rheumatoid arthritis (here he is, crying again). He talks openly about his family’s history with clinical depression (here he is, using his own experience to advise a depressed follower ).

When it comes to papering over the tragedy of life, the Joel Osteens of the Church are low-hanging fruit. And yet, even when churches don’t blatantly preach a prosperity gospel, there can still be an unspoken expectation that even if things get this bad, they probably won’t get that bad, or at least not bad in that way. Maybe we’ll allow that church people can die of cancer, or something. But church families struggling with dysfunction and estrangement? Church couples having sexual frustration? Pastors being depressed? We don’t like to talk about these things. They’re hard, and they’re messy, and they’re not just going to be magically fixed by so many hours of prayer and Bible reading.

Christians need space to be honest. They need space to say it out loud when everything is falling apart, and their prayers are not being answered. They need pastors and other church members who will go through the darkness with them, instead of shying away from it. They need to be shown, by example, that to name the dark is not to surrender to the dark. If a pagan Stoic can confront it and emerge with his spirit intact, how much less do we have to fear, as those who do not walk without hope?

5. The Church must be willing to stand up.

Long before the Cathy Newman interview, Peterson caught people’s attention for saying he wouldn’t use “alternate pronouns” in the wake of new Canadian legislation that made transgenders a protected class. It was a gutsy move that put him in a risky position relative to his job at University of Toronto. And people respected him for it. People are looking for that person who won’t salute the flag, who won’t make the gesture, who won’t tell the little lie to stay out of big trouble. They are looking because they suspect that the person who says “I will not do this” usually has very good reasons for not doing this, whatever “this” is. Reasons developed over a lifetime, integrated into a worldview built by hand.

The fact that Peterson wouldn’t in fact sign on to a holistic conservative Christian worldview is not the point here. The point is that increasingly few Christians are willing to stand for anything. They think they are earning credit with people by capitulating to every new demand of the broader culture, when all they are earning is contempt and empty pews.

The Church must be willing to say “I will not.” The Church must be willing to stand up and be counted. If she loses her soul now, she will never find it again.

In conclusion, there is no silver bullet that will solve the mystery of why people don’t like church but love Jordan Peterson. While I’m handing out unsolicited advice, let me also offer some equally unsolicited encouragement: For many of you, there is a large extent to which you couldn’t help this. Faithful pastors who look on self-consciously at Peterson’s charisma, knowledge base and speaking skills: You couldn’t help this. Christian parents whose son never listened to you but will listen to Jordan Peterson: You couldn’t help this. Persevere. Till the field you’ve been given. Let the Spirit work through whom He will work. And if you should open your office door of a Sunday to find an awkward young man full of awkward questions, invite him in and tell him to take a seat. You will know what to do.


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