By Aaron M. 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.

Posted by Guest Writer

  • Brett

    “In the most important matters, Peterson is wrong.”

    I can’t say if this statement is correct or incorrect since I can’t find out to which matters the writer refers. Some explanation would be helpful.

    • rogerwmbennett

      I’m sure Renn is referring to Peterson’s metaphysics as Renn construes them.

      • Brett

        That’s certainly possible. Still, it needs spelling out.

  • rogerwmbennett

    In The Masculinist #1, Renn correctly notes that he has
    “no seminary or professional background,” so caveat emptor when he tosses out lines like “false pagan metaphysics” and “a variety of toxic views.”
    From what I’ve seen of Peterson and Renn-the-Christian-commentator (as a former Evangelical, former Calvinist, now Eastern Orthodox), neither is remotely reliable as a source of distinctly Christian teaching, but Peterson’s intense immersion in the Bible, from his Jungian perspective, produces more noteworthy and intriguing insights.

    • hoosier_bob

      I found the evangelical view of “biblical masculinity” to be far more toxic and damaging than anything I’ve gleaned from my post-evangelical wanderings. Besides, I quite like Jung. I’d far more trust a young man with Jung than I would with the likes of Denny Burk, Tim Bayly, Doug Wilson, Mark Driscoll, and C.J. Mahaney.

      • rogerwmbennett

        That “evangelical view” is probably less univocal than your comment suggests, as are the boundaries of evangelicalism. The “servant leader” model (Renn’s bugaboo less for its toxicity than for its failure to actually attract women) doesn’t sound to much much like Mark Driscoll, for instance.

        • hoosier_bob

          I pointed it out because Renn mentioned Matt Chandler, who, in my view, is little more than a misogynist, in the vein of the others I’ve noted.

    • rogerwmbennett

      I misread something: Renn does not impute “toxic views” to Peterson, so I have revised my original comment.

    • Cal P

      Jungian archetypes, as something Real and not a utilitarian concept, are “false pagan metaphysics”. It’s trash talk, sure, but it’s is itself a ‘caveat emptor’ for many who are becoming popular consumers of the Peterson brand. The problem is not Peterson trying to be a Christian, but his proliferation as providing models for men in a post-Industrial capitalist west, which depend upon a particular place in the social hierarchy of American white-collared laborers. In the land of the blind, Freud is king.

      But, more broadly:

      The main problem that Peterson is addressing is how to live your life, generally appealing to white-collar middle-class men. And Protestantism is a general failure because it depends upon a zeitgeist to direct the mundane civic affairs of life (as opposed to theological truths). Whether the urbane mainline, or the middle-America, folksier, variety among Evangelicals, both are collapsing under the alienating forms of work and life the post-Industrial West is in. In some ways, this point is the same one that Dreher was trying to address in the Benedictine communities. I think he’s a fruity aesthete, and his dreams are Romantic fantasies at the core, but he is grappling with the same problems of what to do. Not everyone wants to be, or can be, a Davos eunuch, which befits a certain socio-economic status and workplace ethos.

      There are some who are pointing the way to some kind of counter-revolutionary, backwards looking, mytho-national turn. It’s about reviving and resuscitating more traditional ways of life, spanning the spectrum from Wendell Berry-esque agrarianism to white nationalism. In others, like Peterson, it’s recuperating a late 19th/early 20th century classical liberal universalism, finding the distinctly Human through a combination of physical scientific research and social scientific theory. I don’t think either path is a good one for Christians, and their gathering as churches, because either depends upon a super-addition or filling in of a perceived lacuna in the NT.

      The counter-claim is that the Apostolic witness provides a sufficient conceptual schema to understand not only the cultural alienation of the post-industrial west, but to use it for an advantage. Even non-Christian continental philosophers have seen this train of thought in Paul’s letters (Badiou, Agamben, Michel Henry, et al.) What form of life does the gospel call forth among a plethora of peoples? That’s yet to be decisively seen in the world of today.

      • rogerwmbennett

        A thoughtful response. Thank you. My intuition is that Jordan Peterson is good and I don’t want to let some unknown perfect drown out his message. But I could be wrong: reality is messy and we’re in a pretty deep hole even by messy reality standards.

      • Ian

        Cal, I’m not surprised you’re grouchy about Peterson (please take that with a wink) but I am surprised to see your criticism of him here followed by a jeremiad against “the alienating forms of work and life the post-Industrial West is in.” I’ll add that I’m uncertain because I don’t agree Peterson is recuperating that classical liberal universalism you mention in your second to last paragraph. As far as using Jung as a heuristic— I know you’re not an idealist, that you don’t advocate junking any concept or form that isn’t 100% flawless or uncorrupted, but what is it about the archetypes you find so insalubrious?

        • Cal P

          It’s not a jeremiad, it’s an analytical claim. Most of white-collared America lives in a Fukuyama-esque world: global capitalism is the end of history, we’re on a kind of endless progression of uplift towards nothing in particular, our work is about generating wealth and thus we must engage in an individualistic quest to carve meaning into otherwise trivial labor etc. Hence the crisis of identity among the many men who don’t fit or feel quite right about this arrangement, especially as the office-space is crowded with more and more women and habits and modes of speech are being altered. Capitalism ultimately involves the alienation of labor, and our current state, as liberal and progressive as it might seem, is its triumph.

          That’s not necessarily a good, but the alienation is not necessarily a bad thing either. It uproots people and diminishes the power that tribalistic control exerts. Now there are those who lament it, and want to get back to a more tribal life (e.g. white nationalists, the phylotic currents not only in EO, but also Rome and some Protestants). But that’s not the only option on the table for Christians.

          I don’t understand how Peterson is not a classical liberal. Freud and his student Jung were very much defenders of the liberal project, but they saw it as far more tenuous and threatened than the naive proponents of it in the early 19th century. Man was not inherently rational, but had to stake out that ground and defend it carefully. That was what psychoanalysis was about, pushing back the power of neurotic urges, whether towards eros or destruction (which were two sides of the same coin).

          I’m against Jung because a metaphysical construct that thinks it has found universal characters that exceed the scope of Biblical revelation is inherently not a good way forward, an depends upon trends in what may be called post-Christian theology (something begun with Hegel, and continued among more chastened liberals). Adopting a Jungian archetypal perspective flips everything around: Christianity is part of a more fundamental and universal reality, rather than being the full revelation of what is real. It can sound Christian, and use Christian terms, but it is done so in such a way that recognizes that Christian grammar and theology is just mythic language to describe the Human condition. For a Chrisitan it is important that this reappropriation doesn’t get an easy pass.

  • Robert Mokry

    Mr. Renn, you can’t simply throw out lines like “false pagan metaphysics, with potential dire consequences for their eternal destiny,” or “in the most important matters, Peterson is wrong” without explaining that. Since the main point of your article is not the flaws in Peterson’s metaphysics but the failure of the church in reaching young men, why not avoid making these assertions that don’t advance the thesis? Or, if you have critiqued Peterson’s metaphysics elsewhere, how about linking to those writings just as you have provided references to many of the other points you made. Don’t announce a danger of eternal significance without telling us what the danger is.