Arts & Culture & Public Square

What’s in the Jordan Peterson Message for the Church?

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I don’t know if you’ve heard the rumblings, but something interesting is happening outside the church around the topic of masculinity and it is starting to gain traction inside the church.

The apparent pied piper of this discussion is a Canadian psychology professor at the University of Toronto named Jordan Peterson. Once unknown, Peterson, according to Kelefa Sanneh, “is now one of the most influential—and polarizing—public intellectuals in the English-speaking world”

A Man on a Mission…for Traditional Values?

Dr. Jordan Peterson delivering a lecture at the University of Toronto in 2017.

Peterson has built his new popularity through the Internet. His YouTube channel has nearly a million subscribers, with lectures on subjects like the “neo-Marxist” assault on Western civilization, the Bible, Jungian archetypes, and Soviet totalitarianism. A contentious interview he did with reporter Cathy Newman has had over eight million views alone. Also, in a more conventional medium, Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is currently the most-read book on Amazon.

No one really knows what to think about Peterson. As a headline in The Globe and Mail recently put it: “high intellect or just another angry white guy?” Joe Carter at the The Gospel Coalition calls him a “Jungian Francis Schaeffer.” Another writer suggests “he’s more like a frontier folk hero—someone who’s not afraid to take on the bad guys and battle the forces of disorder and chaos.”

David Brooks describes the problem with our culture from Peterson’s perspective in an op-ed in the New York Times:

For much of Western history, he (Peterson) argues, Christianity restrained the human tendency toward barbarism. But God died in the 19th century, and Christian dogma and discipline died with him. That gave us the age of ideology, the age of fascism and communism—and with it, Auschwitz, Dachau and the gulag. Since then we’ve tried another way to pacify the race. Since most conflict is over values, we’ve decided to not have any values. We’ll celebrate relativism and tolerance. We deny the true nature of humanity and naïvely pretend everyone is nice. The upside is we haven’t blown ourselves up; the downside is we live in a world of normlessness, meaninglessness and chaos.

Reframing Masculinity and What the Church Can Learn

While Peterson borrows much from Christianity to support his view on morality and virtue, a close examination of his writings demonstrates his views regarding Christianity are not orthodox. Yet, for Christians, there is an essential message we can take from the “Jordan Peterson Phenomenon.”

Peterson’s message of responsibility and virtue particularly resonates with many young men in our culture. At the heart of his message, as author Alistair Roberts puts it, is “responsibility as grace, not law,” which is very different from what men have heard from the culture and, in some cases, even the church.

In our culture, young men have been explicitly and implicitly told they bear responsibility for the wrongs of a “patriarchal” society. In the church, as Roberts suggests, we have used the word responsibility to highlight men’s shortcomings and prod them to action.

On the other hand, Peterson presents responsibility as a medium for meaning and purpose in men’s lives. Peterson’s message, Roberts continues, presents an opportunity to speak encouragement into men’s lives, and the church needs to see it in the same light:

…we have been given the capacity to impact the world for the better and the world needs us to make that difference. Strong and responsible men are not burdened with the blame for the world’s problems or beaten down by a perfectionist standard to [sic] which they can never attain, but encouraged and assisted to do what they can to change things. Responsibility is held out as an invitation to rise up to honour, not as a source of crushing shame.

The Missing Piece to Peterson’s Prescription for Culture

People are hungry for a positive message, a worldview that leads them to find purpose and meaning in their lives. Peterson has correctly identified the problem and sounded the alarm.

However, the problem with what Peterson is offering, and indeed the limitation with all self-help programs, is that it doesn’t quite deliver on what it promises. Why? Because at the end of the day, we cannot, on our own, make the changes that will bring sustainable transformation and provide the meaning and purpose we all so deeply desire.

This is why the gospel of Jesus Christ is so different. The work Christ did on our behalf changes us from the inside out. We are empowered by the gift of his Spirit working in and through us. Therefore, we have what it takes to not only make a difference in our own lives but also in the lives of others.

As Jonathan Pennington writes in IFWE’s new book Counting the Cost:

Christianity provides not merely a set of values or a vision that we should pursue and which thereby promises flourishing; it provides the heart cure and renewal in our souls that enables us to actually pursue and experience flourishing. This is good news indeed.

What can we learn from the “Jordan Peterson Phenomenon”? How to boldly present our worldview as a counter-cultural alternative full of truth the world needs, but also of grace and action as well. Peterson is not wrong, but without the addition of God’s plan for redemption and the power of the Holy Spirit who makes it possible, he misses the mark.

Truth + grace + action (ours and the Holy Spirit’s) can make all the difference.


Editor’s note: Find meaning and purpose in the biblical meaning of work. Read more in How Then Should We Work?

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Photo credit: Adam Marks (CC by 2.0)

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