Like many others, I have some time invested in listening to the new star of the psychology world: Jordan Peterson. If you don’t know the name, he is a clinical psychologist from Canada who has recently exploded onto the world stage mostly because of his stand against political correctness.
To say that Peterson is brilliant is an understatement. I always enjoy listening to people ask him questions. It feels like they are just trying to stump him, but he always manages to come up with nuanced answers. His lectures tend to be highly educational as he effortlessly riffs through topics related to psychology, religion, history and politics. Intellectualism is rare, and I always appreciate it when I hear it.
Beyond that, I am not so impressed and I doubt that he will last long in the public eye. I think he has made at least one big mistake that I will get to in a bit. Before I do, I think it is worth asking the question: why has he developed such a following in the first place?
Let’s talk for a second about what he has to say and where he is coming from. Peterson is probably an agnostic although he spends a lot of energy trying to avoid that label or any other label. He may not believe in the Bible in the way a Christian does but he does see value in the Bible (and other holy books). He basically sees such books that have stood the test of time as containing a timeless moral code for life that should taken seriously. He believes in the importance of a moral code and speaks strongly on what he believes that moral code should look like.
I suspect most of my readers find this way of dealing with the Bible unacceptable; but it is very popular in moderate to liberal secular circles. Even in the more liberal Christian circles, theologians like Peter Enns hold to a variation of that view (in my opinion anyway).
Now, getting back to Peterson, here is the interesting thing: while churches everywhere are preaching a moral code from the Bible, young people are leaving the church in droves. At the same time, Peterson preaches a moral code at least somewhat originating from the Bible and he is selling out venues full of young people who soak up everything he has to say.
So why is he a phenomenon while the church is flailing? It is not like Peterson is an exceptional speaker. He isn’t. He rambles a lot and is disjointed. And while he is an intellectual, his presentation is nothing close to flashy. Yet he is enormously influential with young people in a way that essentially no pastor in America can claim. I am going to speculate on a few reasons for why that is true:
He says hard things without apology.
At least until recently, Peterson has seemed to filter his content based only on whether he believes it should be said. He is not politically correct. Political correctness is often simply the unnatural elevation of the goal of not offending people over telling the truth. It exists in different forms within most subcultures (Christianity has its own obnoxious form) and is a cancer and detriment to improvement and growth. Peterson is quite open to the idea of offending people with truth. Truth is the only valid reason to offend people, but it is a valid reason.
Though there are exceptions, his approach is not generally what you see church leaders doing these days. They are trying to avoid offense and foster as much inclusiveness as they can. I am not saying that they are wrong to do that but ironically, it is working against them. Peterson gets away with saying hard things to people that pastors want to say but can’t or won’t.
I will be blunt (Peterson-style blunt). Most church leaders can’t be like Peterson because they are too worried about various things, some legitimate and some not so. They are legitimately worried about offending people; because in most churches, just a few families leaving can render it financially unviable. However, many of them are also worried about losing influence in their little circle of church leader friends. A lot of them are still obsessed with pleasing the college they went to decades before (as if that matters) or getting invited to speak at a conference. Typically, church leaders are in a position of weakness both because of the hand they have been dealt, and also because many of them are just weak in general.
It is possible that what I just said is not true, but I doubt it. I am basing that on my interactions with hundreds of church leaders over the years across all denominations. A lot of you reading this are church leaders and while some of you are now mad at me, you know deep down that I am right. I may not be talking about you, but I am talking about some of your friends. I do want to say this: I know that Peterson has a huge advantage over church leaders. He can craft his image as he has and make it work financially. Many of you just can’t be like him for pragmatic reasons. I get that and I am not judging.
He comes across as real, untainted by charges of hypocrisy.
For any number of reasons, young people have decided that the church is too full of hypocrisy from the top down. They see the inappropriate political stances, sex scandals, and abusive leadership; and very frankly, they see church members lie, cheat, and steal on Monday-Saturday when they are not dressed up for church. They are not impressed and have just decided to get their rules of life from somewhere else.
Guys, I want you to understand that this is no bitter attack on the church. I am just calling it as I see it. The church at large simply is not in a position right now where it can legitimately take a stand on morality. Your run-of-the-mill church members are not viewed as being in a position to pontificate morality either. I am not saying they are bad people. I am just saying they are not better people than the unchurched. If you deal with Christians outside of church, you probably know that to be true. I have never seen any anecdotal evidence or research studies that suggest otherwise.
Now I have been in Christianity a long time, and a human even longer; and I know how these things usually go. When church leaders look at Jordan Peterson’s success, their tendency will be to blame the young people flocking to him and label them as rebellious, bitter, and anti-God. That might be tempting and even partially true, but it is hardly the whole truth. As the Bible says, let judgment begin in the house of God. A lot of church leaders need to look in the mirror before blaming the wayward young people. A lot of Christians need to look in the mirror, too. Again, I am sounding pretty judgmental but I accept that I am right there with everyone else. I am painfully aware of the fact that I am often hypocritical, too.
In my opinion, Peterson is going to flame out pretty quickly. It is easy to be blunt and real when you are building something, but once you get there, it is tempting to go into preservation mode to protect what you have. I think he has already started making accommodations to keep his audience and I don’t think he is saying much of anything that is as interesting or unique any more. I actually skimmed his new book about twelve rules for life and found it pretty unhelpful. The rules are either obvious or require a ton more development to be useful.
Eventually, his followers will move on. They are not called young and restless for nothing. And when that happens, the question will be whether the church has anything to fill the void.
One last note: I did not address in this post the fact that Peterson has been widely embraced by the alt-right. I cannot emphasize how much I despise the alt-right, their racism, stupid conspiracy theories, and all the other idiocy you hear from those people. However, I choose not to blame Peterson for becoming one of their heroes. They have hijacked his message and as best as I can tell from studying him, he is not to blame for that. I do not sense that he would agree with them at all.