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Jordan Peterson’s Folk Wisdom

April 9th, 2018 | 7 min read

By Aaron Renn

With the dysfunction in too many young men’s lives today, and the failure of the church to reach them, Jordan Peterson’s emergence as a guru to them has been, and should be, prompting some serious analysis – not just of him but also of the church.

How has Peterson done it? The role of circumstance and chance (or, if you prefer, the sovereignty of God) looms large in outsized success in any domain. Peterson benefited a lot from sheer luck, something we need to keep firmly in mind when thinking about any kind of celebrity. But just because he’s lucky doesn’t mean he can’t also be good.

Yet one thing that jumps out immediately about Peterson is the banality of his advice. For example, consider his most famous dictum: “clean your room.” He told Joe Rogan, “If you want to change the world you start with yourself and work outward because you build your competence that way….if you can’t even clean up your own room, who the hell are you to give advice to the world?” This is very similar to the “make your bed” rule from Navy SEAL Admiral William McRaven’s viral commencement speech at the University of Texas in 2014 (91 million views and subsequently turned into a book of the same name). “If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right…. If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.”

Rule #3 in Peterson’s book, “Make friends with people who want the best for you,” is reminiscent of the old saying that “you are the average of your five closest friends.” The mind-body feedback loop in Rule #1 from his book, “Stand up straight with your shoulders back,” is similar to Amy Cuddy’s viral TED Talk (46 million views) on power poses. (Power poses, incidentally, have been at least partially debunked). As for Rule #8, “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world,” where might I have heard something like that before? (Matt 7:3-5).

Indeed, reviewer Scott Alexander says, “Jordan Peterson’s superpower is saying clichés and having them sound meaningful.” Give the man some credit for packaging. As a psychologist, Peterson is clearly well versed in the literature on persuasion. As a clinical practitioner, he also has plenty of experience in reaching troubled people. And he positions his advice as part of an aspirational philosophical package that gives it weight. By contrast, Amy Cuddy describes power poses merely as a “life hack.” Most other people seem to be similarly packaging their wisdom as practical tips. That includes, I must confess, me when writing about things like how you can improve your posture, how you establish a daily prayer routine, etc. Whether useful or not, pedestrian presentations like these will never have the attractional power of Peterson’s elevated discourse.

Peterson may have great rhetorical skills – Scott Alexander compares him to CS Lewis – but the resonance of his work is only possible because of the vacuum it’s filling. Advice like “Stand up straight with your shoulders back” was formerly folk wisdom. A couple generations ago it was the sort of thing your dad or your grandfather would have told you, and made you do, when you were growing up.

Alas, we live a world where folk wisdom has been subjected to savage attacks, largely successful. We now believe a whole host of new ideas, some of which might be good, but many of which are simply untrue and are deeply damaging if you live your life based on them. Unfortunately, not just fathers but also the church believes too many of them, even adding some of its own. When these have blown up, as with purity culture or Mark Driscoll, there has been no accountability for these colossal failures.

Here is one small but profound example. Many churches teach that women are attracted to godly “servant leaders.” That’s self-evidently not true. Women are attracted to men with power and status, confidence and charisma, good looks and resources (especially money). Superstar pastor Matt Chandler says, “I keep saying it: Godliness is sexy to godly people.” Jordan Peterson says, “Girls aren’t attracted to boys who are their friends, even though they might like them, whatever that means. They are attracted to boys who win status contests with other boys.” Who is closer to the truth?

Young men are drawn to Jordan Peterson because he is telling them true things our society, and unfortunately too often the church, rejected in favor of lies and wishful thinking. And when young men discover that Peterson is telling them the truth about primal topics like intersexual dynamics, they are then opened to his false pagan metaphysics, with potential dire consequences for their eternal destiny.

This gets to the real heart of Peterson’s draw. It’s not just that he says true, if not particularly insightful, things. It’s that he has the moral courage to say them in a culture that has socially delegitimized the truth. Nothing did more to put Peterson on the map than his avowed refusal to comply with Canadian bill C-16, which would criminalize failing to call someone by even completely made up words like “xir” and “zhe.” He said, “I’ve studied authoritarianism for a very long time – for 40 years – and they’re started by people’s attempts to control the ideological and linguistic territory. There’s no way I’m going to use words made up by people who are doing that – not a chance.” Similarly, his interview on Britain’s Channel 4, in which he stood firm in the face of a hostile interviewer without surrendering to her frame drew millions of views. Peterson isn’t just talking academically about masculinity or how men should live, he’s personally demonstrating manly courage in the public arena.

This moral courage has been central to the appeal of a large number of e-celebrities like Peterson. It was even arguably the single greatest factor in the electoral appeal of Trump that he flatly refused to be “politically correct.”

Having the courage to publicly flout social boundaries does not of course make one right. In the most important matters, Peterson is wrong. The question then is where is the moral courage from the people who do supposedly have it right?

Every day when I scan media about the church, I see pastors and Christian activists standing up and publicly beating their breasts about things like racism and refugees, with positions that are currently in favor culturally. They’ll wave the Christian flag high about these, signing open letters in the Washington Post denouncing Trump’s policies and the like. They are loud and proud about it, and quick to claim that Christianity requires their positions.

But how often do they publicly say something that would get them uninvited from a Manhattan cocktail party? For all too many of them, never.

That’s the difference between the church and Jordan Peterson. While the elite Evangelical cultural engagement crowd is busy suing for peace with the world, he’s laying it on the line. You might protest that he’s a tenured professor and that he’s banked his book advance and his Patreon money. Well, a lot of those Christian pastors have sold a lot of books too. Where are they?

When Jonathan Haidt, another anodyne academic, said a few things that generated outrage at a West Coast high school, he observed, “After the crowd broke up, a line of boys came up to me to thank me and shake my hand.” Young men are desperately looking for elders with moral courage. If the church fails to supply them, the world is happy to provide its own, many of which, unlike Haidt and Peterson, have a variety of toxic views.

The Jordan Peterson cycle will eventually burn itself out—maybe in spectacular fashion, if the media eventually manages to take him down. When that happens, it might be tempting for the church to tut-tut and go back to business as usual. Instead it should be taking stock of why these secular thinkers are so successful at what the church has repeatedly failed at, namely attracting men.

We hear from Christian leaders today that the church must speak to the questions and longings of the culture in order to reach people for Christ. Jordan Peterson and others have shown that there’s a massive cultural opportunity to reach young men. Do we have the courage to, as Solzhenitsyn urged, live not by lies? Can we identify, live by, and speak the truth? This doesn’t have to mean going on TV and deliberately provoking outrage. It could be as simple as telling the truth about attraction and other things to your son or men’s group. But is even this a call and an opportunity the church is willing to seize? If not, plenty of other people are ready to step up.

Aaron M. Renn is the publisher of the Masculinist, a monthly newsletter about masculinity and Christianity.