The Peterson Phenomenon

Back in January, I started reading a book by Jordan Peterson. I posted a few quotes on twitter, and people started asking me my opinion of him. It took until last month to actually finish the book – it’s a long (albeit not too difficult) read, and my reading pace has significantly slowed down of late! But now I’ve read it I decided I’d give some brief thoughts.

For those who’ve never heard of him, Jordon Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology. Throughout last year he was gaining significant popularity, especially on YouTube, and particularly amongst evangelical Christians and those of less ‘liberal-progressive’ political persuasion.

He particularly gained notoriety when he was interviewed by Cathy Newman on Channel 4. This interview exposed Newman’s biased agenda and lack of research and enabled Peterson to clearly explain his rational position on topics like masculinity, the gender pay gap and transgenderism. Two thirds of the way through, Newman was left speechless! The interview is well worth a watch.

Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, evolved from an internet post where Peterson posted some suggested rules for how people ought to live. He expands these into chapters that explain and expound the rules using his experiences and knowledge as a psychologist and his research into all kinds of things, including his study of the Bible.

One thing that strikes me about Peterson is his common wisdom. In other words, he offers wisdom that God has graciously made known apart from the special revelation of scripture that enables us to live well as humans. Peterson simply has lots of wisdom to share on all kinds of topics – wisdom that can be gleaned by thinking carefully about how life works at its best and learning from others.

One particular chapter that I’d love every young parent to read is “Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.” It’s a brilliant corrective for lacking parenting trends today. He also speaks into masculinity in several chapters, which is certainly worth tapping into and learning from.

Peterson has become popular amongst evangelical Christians largely because he is an ethical ally. On topics like gender and transgenderism, he’s willing to speak frankly from the conclusions he has come to. In an age when all is permissible, gender is flattened, and feelings trump reason, Christians may feel like what they stand up for is completely ridiculous. But to have a secular academic championing ethics and morals that resonate with Christians is affirming.

One eye opening moment for me was when he pointed out that you cannot say that gender is merely a social construct and also say that a woman was born in a man’s body. The two are incompatible statements – think about it! It’s also nice to have someone fighting against those who insist we should only have one or two children for ethical reasons.

However, there is not complete accord with Peterson, especially evidenced by his liberal theology. He doesn’t have a high view of scripture (even though he quotes and refers to it extensively) and he doesn’t have an orthodox view of God. He considers the Christian faith as a source of ancient wisdom rather than divine revelation, and therefore one source amongst all other religions.

If I were to sum up his position, I’d call it realistic humanism. He considers humans as capable of great evil, but challenges us to make ourselves into better people, especially in his coda. This runs opposite to the biblical perspective where we are totally incapable of fixing ourselves and need divine redemption in Jesus.

Peterson, then, is certainly worth reading, especially as a corrective to our increasingly permissive and irrational society. I enjoyed it very much. It’s not a quick ready and is at times quite challenging and provoking. And Peterson must not be swallowed without thinking carefully from a biblical perspective. But parts of it are gold dust!

(Originally posted in the September edition of our church magazine)

photo credit: Gage Skidmore Jordan Peterson via photopin (license)