By David George Moore
Someone last year, and I can’t recall who, recommended that I watch some of the videos on Jordan Peterson’s YouTube channel. Since my workouts include time on the treadmill, I listen to all kinds of teaching and preaching on the web. I believe my entrée to Peterson was some of his lectures on the Bible.
In the first few minutes of the “Biblical Series I: Introduction to the Idea of God,” there are several things Peterson says that will make Christians wince. He wants us to know that he sees the “…Biblical stories as if they’re a mystery, fundamentally.” He goes on to say that there “…is a lot we don’t understand about them. We don’t understand how they came about. We don’t really understand how they were put together.” Much could be said about Peterson’s need to better understand salient details about the Scriptures, but that is not germane to my reflections here.
When one watches Peterson, one is struck by his sincerity and his careful choice of words. At times Peterson seems tortured as he struggles to find the best combination of words to communicate the urgency of his concerns. Those concerns convey an earnestness which is not easy to dismiss.
Peterson doesn’t raise his voice much, though his vocal cadence is hardly monotone. Aristotle said that the merging of content (logos), proper affection (pathos), and what we would call integrity or credibility (ethos) are what make a speaker effective. Interestingly, Aristotle said an effective speaker may not truly have ethos, but his audience must at least believe he is in possession of it.
Peterson’s loyal and growing audience believes he lives in light of what he says. Indeed, Peterson’s credibility hardly looks like artifice. He seems genuinely concerned about addressing the biggest issues facing young men. Granted, young men get the bulk of Peterson’s attention, but it should be noted that there are women who equally appreciate Peterson’s call for taking responsibility and doing one’s part to reduce the suffering in this world. Peterson’s clarion call for all people to grow up and do good, is a simple one in many ways. In our confused times, it is sadly all too rare.
What draws me to listen to Peterson, notwithstanding my heavy trunk of objections to his overall worldview, is the willingness to get involved in the messy details of terribly broken people. Peterson’s own counseling has included extended care with those carrying deep wounds, the kind that don’t easily go away.
For many years, I’ve wondered where the ministers are who not only teach on, but get personally involved with socially awkward or emotionally immature people. We all know what I am talking about here. We label folks like this as “needy people.” They don’t make friends easily. They say strange things. Many times they have little common sense with the basics of manners and grooming. We steer clear because these kinds of people are “draining,” which is another label we gladly employ. Even more convicting for me personally is to admit an additional fear I have: If I reach out to those who have difficulty navigating life due to their lower social or emotional intelligence, will others assume I must be similarly inept?
I’ve heard many preachers proudly proclaim that “the gospel speaks to all of life.” Why then have I heard so little about the gospel speaking into the lives of those who are awkward socially and/or emotionally immature?
Gladly, my own minister regularly addresses all kinds of challenges of living in a terribly broken world. Forty years of exposure to many churches and parachurch ministries tells me that Pastor Peter is all too rare.
I recently read the terrific piece Alastair Roberts did on Jordan Peterson.
In the comment thread, I congratulated Alastair for his good words:
Well said, Alastair! I was putting together my own piece, but decided to hold off in light of your good reflections.
One thing I’ve wondered about for many years: Where are the pastors who befriend and speak into the messy lives of awkward, emotionally immature, and socially stunted (many times stuck there due to parents and grandparents who have the same problems) young men? We all know people like I’ve described, but it is terribly costly and complex to address so we steer clear. For all his heterodox ideas, Jordan Peterson is willing to engage awkward others.
From his own experience, Alastair responded with humility and gratitude:
I was one of those lost young men as an older teenager and there were mature men who spoke into my situation. It made an immense difference in my life.
You can see that I changed my mind about writing, but I certainly haven’t on the immense amount of work there is to be done in ministering to those whose awkwardness makes us run in the opposite direction.
In one of his cheeky comments, Dallas Willard liked to say that one advantage of going to church is that it gives you a great opportunity to love your enemies. Identifying with a local church also affords plenty of opportunities to befriend and encourage those who we are not naturally drawn to hanging out with!
David George Moore lives in Austin, Texas, and ministers through Two Cities Ministries. His ebook, Pooping Elephants, Mowing Weeds: What Business Gurus Failed to Tell You and his book, Get to Know Bill: the Generosity of William F. Buckley will be out this year. Dave is a regular contributor to Patheos/Jesus Creed. He also hosts an online show: www.mooreengaging.com.
Peterson is not reaching “young men” per se, but young men of a particular socio-economic backdrop who have been infected with concerns of identity in the gender-amorphous world of white-collared work. Peterson’s an interesting celebrity phenomenon, but one I hope is not taken too seriously. He is a popularized of Jung, oriented in our Freudian world of wounded heroes, in a way not categorically different than Star Wars. ‘Tis the curse of wealth.
But it’s interesting that there’s an equivocation between Alastair’s experience with “older men” and Peterson. How can a virtual talking-head even be in the same league? Since there’s little interest in doctrine, why are there no posts about “listening” to Tony Robbinson or Oprah? They try to get people back on their feet too. It doesn’t detract from his sincerity or his impact, but Peterson isn’t doing all of this speaking and writing ‘pro bono’. This all seems rather lop-sided.
Perhaps this will clarify a bit. I said in the piece that Peterson’s
view of the Bible is woefully inadequate. Christians should not be
advised at all to buy into his perspective on Scripture. However, there
are things to be gleaned (with proper discernment) from Peterson’s
approach to the struggles that some have.
I understand that point, but it’s still highly selective among other celebrity gurus that have a cult following. Peterson’s the new kid on the block, but I’d find it hard to imagine Mere Orthodoxy ever posting an article praising the positive benefits of a Joyce Meyers or an Oprah, which operate at a “Christian” but heretical/heterodox level.
The point being that there is a class element around the attraction. Mockingbird, in many ways a sister site to MereO, praises Russel Brand and Alain de Botton, among others, for their “reaching people” despite their atheistic brand of heterodox Christianity (channeling the spirit of Bonhoeffer!). I understand a certain segment of people liking Peterson, but there’s nothing general or average about it. The attraction of young men must be qualified to a certain fraction of them (namely university trained, cynical, 20-45 white-collar-ish, who are temperamentally conservative).
Are you the Cal that interacts pretty regularly at Kevin Davis’ blog After Existentialism, Light?
To quote the humble Lancelot: c’est moi, c’est moi, ’tis I
Some folks are chosen as interlocutors not because they are closer to the truth, though some are, but because they engage at a more thoughtful level. Oprah and Joyce Meyers, along with a whole host of their male counterparts, are not considered good conversational company in venues like this one.
If you can’t see the clear differences between Peterson, Oprah and Tony Robbins, I can’t really help here. Especially Oprah…if anything, JP is the anti-Oprah.
If you can’t see the similarities, the same applies. I don’t deny the differences, but merely remarking on the larger trends.
Your statement was asinine. Deal with it.
You’re a moron…checkmate?
Perhaps this will clarify a bit. I said in the piece that Peterson’s view of the Bible is woefully inadequate. Christians should not be advised at all to buy into his perspective on Scripture. However, there are things to be gleaned (with proper discernment) from Peterson’s approach to the struggles that some have.
This comment highlights one of the reasons why I felt that evangelicalism was too intellectually confining for me.
God speaks through general revelation and special revelation. But it is the same God who speaks through both. Thus, we should expect that there’s a lot that we can learn from those who are astute observers of the world around us. It’s called gaining wisdom. Never mind that Christians have generally not viewed special revelation in the “rule book” or “truth pill” sense that has become popular in evangelicalism.
I think you’d largely agree with that assessment. In fact, I hardly see where such an averment is controversial. Even so, during my time in evangelicalism, I witnessed many who had come to question the spiritual value in the acquisition of wisdom from astute observation of the natural order. It’s come to be seen as something “secular,” and therefore tainted in some way.
Anyway, it’s disappointing that evangelical writers have to offer half-apologies for suggesting that someone who’s not a Lindsellian biblicist may actually have a cogent thought or two. It goes a long way towards explaining why I returned to the Protestant mainline. I appreciate the fact that there are those who continue to labor among evangelicals. But it wasn’t a socio-cultural fit for me.
Thanks for stopping by and offering those good comments.
As you underscore, the Christian tradition at its best understands that “all truth is God’s” or as Augustine said “we can plunder the Egyptians.” That many evangelicals don’t appreciate all that is sad, and indeed does limit their spiritual development.
I’m a bit surprised by how dismissive many Christian writers are of Jordan Peterson. I’ve watched some of his podcasts, and I’m working my way through his new book. He doesn’t clam to be a Christians, though he has said – and I’m paraphrasing here – he “acts” as if there is a God. I think that’s better than what appears to be the modus operandi of many Christians I’ve known over the years who are very vocal about their belief in God, but more often than not, act like barbarians. I’ve been taken with the dignity in which he handles his critics, and his emphasis on the power of kindness and listening, as well as the importance of personal responsibility. Of course, his new book rehashes advice packaged differently by others probably since the beginning of human history in one form or another. So what? His book and podcasts are striking chords with many, particularly young men, and if it can help them become better human beings, men, husbands, etc, that’s good. He’s certainly resonating with my profoundly hearing-impaired 24 year-old son who is about to graduate with a degree in Deaf Studies and plans to go on and get a Masters degree and then teach. Not sure what group he fits in to. I’ve been tag teaming reading Peterson with a couple of books by David Bentley Hart. At times, there’s an interesting dialogue going on in my head between the two. I’d really like to see them talk in person. Two super smart, highly educated dudes going at it. Peterson’s earnestness, opinions and perspectives vs. what appears to be Hart’s sarcastic know-it-all persona (I don’t know, he could be a teddy bear in real life, but he doesn’t come off that way). Anyway, what fun.
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I like this, and am also particularly struck by his compassion mixed with tough love for damaged people. He honors the dignity of the human person in a very refreshing way.
This was my .02. I am working on something longer that will hopefully see the light of day somewhere:
[…] been insightful. Various narratives from other sources are on hand as well, samples ranging from tame reductions of Peterson’s message to a feel-good call for more empathy towards awkward you…, to a more comprehensive analysis of the broader causes that draw those young men into […]