The Church, The Christ, and Jordan Peterson
Like many people, I had no idea who Jordan Peterson was until last month. Most of you likely saw the interview with Channel 4’s Cathy Newman that turned him into the stuff of viral memes. It’s unheard of for a 20-odd-minute video to generate 7 million views, but this one did, and people have been trying to figure out why for weeks, including Peterson himself.
My sophisticated hypothesis? It was cool. It was cool because Peterson kept his cool, and because he looked cool doing it.
But apparently, we’re late to the party. Dr. Peterson has been stirring things up since the fall of 2016, when he spoke out against a Canadian bill that mandated preferred pronoun usage for transgender citizens. The bill passed, but people took notice. By 2018, he had already attracted a large YouTube following by uploading his lectures on life, the universe and everything for free, topics including but not limited to: the Bible, Jungian archetypes, communism (he’s not a fan), and old Disney movies (he’s a fan). Then The Interview happened.
One month later: The news cycles have moved on, and the memes are fading, but we’ve been getting to know Jordan Peterson. We’re reading his book, whose release coincided with the viral interview in a perfect marketing accident. We’re binge-watching his lectures. And the verdict is in: We really like him. But we have a few questions.
Who is Jordan Peterson? Is he the new Messiah? Is he the stupid man’s smart person? Is he a high-brow Joel Osteen?
Short answers: No, no, and no — quite the contrary. Of the three, only the author of the first piece linked agrees with me (seems obvious, but some fans say yes — really).
Here’s the big one: Is he a Christian?
No. Importantly no. We’ll get there.
But first, who is he?
He’s a clinical psychologist. And a good one too.
The Tragic Visionary
Right now, there might be someone outside the Church who understands human nature better than Jordan Peterson. I haven’t found that person yet.
Just watch him speak on marriage, on “real Marxism,” on sin, or on suffering. This is what it looks like when an intellectually honest modern man wrestles with the ways of God and men. It’s a gift. Celebrate it. And take notes.
Self-help pabulum sells, but that’s not what Peterson is selling. His words have weight. They are defined by what Thomas Sowell called “the tragic vision” of life: There are no solutions. You can’t “fix” the world. But if you pick up your cross and bear it, you can make life merely tragic and not hell.
Young men are lining up to hear this. Why? They’re hungry for truth, and Peterson speaks it with clear eyes and a full heart.
So, if Christians are to contend with the professor (and we must), we first need to understand the void he is filling. And we need to admit that this void does not only exist “out there.” As Dr. John Mark Reynolds aptly put it to me, “He is what young men need and the church is not giving: straight talk that is smart.”
This is not to ignore the yeomanly work of pastors like Alistair Begg, Matt Chandler, Tim Keller, and others. But one glance at the best-selling Christian books of 2017 proves that mainstream American Christianity is being smothered with fluff. If our teenage sons would rather stay home and watch Jordan Peterson on YouTube than go to youth group, can we honestly blame them?
Professor or Preacher?
For a guy who doesn’t go to church, the professor has ushered a surprising number of people through her doors. Some have called him their “gateway drug” to Christianity. Perhaps it’s because he forces men to confront what they already know: Truth matters. Human beings are valuable. Sex is not casual. Marriage vows are sacred. Children are blessings. Good and evil are real, and the fabric of your life is woven with choices for one or the other.
This is not mere “moralism,” mere “family values.” This is the breaking in of the natural light on souls walking in darkness. We cannot underestimate its saving power.
But neither can we overestimate it. Because the surest way to annoy Peterson is to ask him outright whether he believes in God.
Why? He thinks it’s the wrong question to ask. It’s not the point. The point, as he tells us here, is this: “I act as if God exists.” If you ask him if the Bible is true, he will ask you what you mean by truth. It is true insofar as it teaches us to live not by lies. But did the stories happen? Who can really say?
And what of Jesus? “Is his resurrection real?” Pause. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Aye. There’s the rub.
In a recent interview with Catholic show host Patrick Coffin, Peterson said he needs “three more years” to understand the Resurrection. When LifeSite snapped it up, Peterson tweeted the report with the comment, “Some Christians aren’t so sure about me,” clearly enjoying the speculation. But his remarks to Coffin ring sincere. Indeed, throughout his work, he presents as the kind of guy who knows what he doesn’t know, but wants to know.
So should we be worried? Well, consider this comment, from that Twitter thread: “As an atheist who lost his faith years ago. Your talks have made me realize that the veracity of the historical Jesus and a literal interpretation of the bible is not necessary. It is in fact the least import [sic] part of the Christian experience.”
Are you still taking notes? I hope so, because there will be a test. And Jordan Peterson can’t take it for you.
Jordan Peterson has got this much right: You’re not good. You’re pretty bad, actually. And you’re not strong. You’re breakable, and brutally so.
So can you be good? Can you be honorable? Can you be strong and courageous? Can you love what is good and hate what is evil? Can you do that which you ought to do and leave off that which you ought not to do?
Well, you can try. But without Christ crucified and resurrected, Christ seen and handled, Christ with fleshy, pierced hand outstretched across the bridge of history, over the gulf of time, you will fall. And you will die.
So, fathers in the church pew, be prepared. Mothers in the church pew, be prepared. Be prepared to give an answer when your son asks you why the resurrected Jesus is not only necessary, but real. And not some pat, pre-packaged answer either. It’s not enough to rattle off a list of “minimal facts” and be done with it. You must make the argument your own and touch it with the color of your own imagination. You must study the opposition and ask yourself honestly if you have the evidence to rebut it. If you do not, you must gather that evidence, piece by piece. Do not let skeptics bully you, and do not let scholars patronize you — scholars conservative, liberal or otherwise. Because your son is not asking them the question. He is asking you.
Be prepared, but be of good cheer: What you seek, you will find, for God has not left Himself without witness.
A Note for the Doctor
There is much I would say to Jordan Peterson, if I could. Perhaps next decade, when he’s not the most wanted man in the world.
But on the off chance that he should read this, I will say this much: Dr. Peterson, you said once that you are afraid God might exist. That’s good. To not be afraid would be lunacy. God is not safe. He is not tame. And He asks your life of you. But you know this.
You are a man of science. You deal in evidence. You do not accept glib soundbites in answer to your questions.
So here’s what I ask of you. You have no doubt read John 19:34-35 many times: that moment of vivid, piercing specificity when blood and water flow mingled from Jesus’ side. I ask you to read it again. Read the words of the evangelist: “And he that saw it bare record, and his record is true: and he knoweth that he saith true, that ye might believe …”
I hope your next three years are fruitful. I hope that you find what you seek. There are some of us who would gladly assist you in the search. You have but to ask.
For now, I leave you with an encouraging thought:
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.
— John Updike, “Seven Stanzas at Easter”