Have you ever heard of Professor Jordan B. Peterson?
I had never heard of him until a few weeks ago, when an explosive TV interview with him by British journalist Cathy Newman went “viral,” as folks like to say these days. I finally got a chance to see it, and it really is worth the 30-minutes. Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist at the University of Toronto, promoting his new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Peterson made waves over a year ago when he publicly opposed a new Canadian law designed to protect transgendered persons from being exposed to offensive speech. Peterson is definitely not “PC,” and his most provocative thesis is that there is a crisis of masculinity in the West today, and that so-called “identity politics” are fundamentally wrong.
In my view, public discourse on important topics is now at an all-time low. Cathy Newman is surely an intelligent, competent and engaging woman, but apparently there were some serious problems afoot in the Channel 4 newsroom that day. The Peterson interview by Newman might be the most eggregious example of an increasingly common rhetorical style, that so captivates both conservative and liberal news media, and that makes up a good chunk of what you find on social media. As Conor Friedersdorf put it in The Atlantic,
- First, a person says something. Then, another person restates what they purportedly said so as to make it seem as if their view is as offensive, hostile, or absurd.
Was Cathy Newman’s aggressive style simply a case of not being able to understand what Peterson was saying, kind of like how I do not “get” what people are saying when they are speaking in a foreign language? Or, was it because she understood Peterson’s message, but was intent on trying to verbally destroy him? Or, was it because she is so ideologically driven that it rendered her incapable of really hearing what Peterson was trying to say? Much of public discourse today takes on one or more of these characteristics, though in Cathy Newman’s case, my guess leans toward the latter.
More and more, words rarely carry meaning in public discourse. Rather, words are mostly used to create an emotive effect. However, in this interview, whether you agree with all that Peterson says, or not, this interview style is a complete disaster. Watch the interview and judge for yourself:
I highlight this YouTube video because it teaches us some very important lessons. First, Christians are foremost to be people of the “Word.” The Gospel is a message to be proclaimed, and not a mood to be effused about. Unfortunately, public discourse today tends to elevate mood over the actual meaning of words, making it often quite difficult to share the Good News with our neighbors, much less talking about anything else of substance. More and more of this worldly style of communication is creeping into the church, whereas Peterson, a secular psychologist, rejects the cultural trend. At one moment, Peterson stated, “I’m very, very, very careful with my words.”
Secondly, consider the message of Jordan Peterson himself. His critique of the New Atheists (think Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc.) is spot on. But also, part of his popularity stems from the fact that he has delivered a set of lectures on YouTube, that focus on the psychological significance of the Biblical stories. If you think that people are really not interested in thinking about and talking about the Bible, then you need to pay attention to what Jordan Peterson is doing. Peterson is an effective communicator, able to take a deeply, imaginative psychological view of the Bible, and apply it directly to the lives of millions of his listeners. Here is British pastor Matthew Hosier’s review of Peterson’s book, New York Times columnist David Brooks analysis of Peterson, and blogger Alistair Robert’s reflections on how Jordan Peterson can help pastors.
Thirdly, when evaluating Jordan Peterson’s teaching from an evangelical perspective, one should proceed with caution. In many ways, Peterson is an ally, but I would be very careful. Though Peterson’s message drinks deeply from the well of Christian thought and the Bible, Jordan Peterson is not a Christian in the historical, evangelical sense. Some of his interpretations of the Bible are problematic. He is closest to being a dualist in my taxonomy of different approaches to science and the Bible, but he pushes this dualism to the limit. Though Peterson believes in the power of the Christian story as true myth, he does not see any clear connection between Christianity as myth and Christianity as history, in a scientific sense, at least he is not sure how they could be related (TRANSLATION: Peterson believes in the power of resurrection as myth, but he does not know what to do with the claim that Jesus was literally, historically, and bodily raised from the dead). I, on the other hand, believe along with C.S. Lewis that Christianity is “myth become fact.”
I admit a struggle with how to properly interpret the Bible, with respect to history. If someone has been a Christian for awhile, who has struggled with how different Christians have interpreted the Bible, this should not come as a surprise. For example, some Christians understand the Book of Jonah to be historical narrative, whereas others see Jonah as fictional, a type of parable meant to teach spiritual truth, and others contend for a mixture of history and fictional elements . Not all interpretations of the Bible are created equal, so trying to sort out how different passages of Scripture should be understood within their historical context, is an essential (and probably life-long) task. But if we sever the link between myth and history, when such a move is unwarranted by the evidence, we risk distorting the very essence of the Gospel. Peterson takes his cues from Carl Jung, Dostoyevsky, Nietszche, and evolutionary psychology. This is powerful stuff. Deep stuff. I need to think about it a lot more. But I am not so sure Peterson’s message can be completely sync’ed up with orthodox, evangelical faith.