I first came across Peterson when my students began wanting to do papers, presentations, and guided studies on him. As I learned more about him, I found that he was obviously contributing something, speaking into a vacuum that a lot of people were timid about. I found that he was challenging liberalism primarily by drawing attention to two things:
- The fragmentary nature of postmodern thought, which says you can’t say anything substantive; everything is perspective.
- The politically correct aspect of liberalism, which insists there are some things you just can’t say.
The response to these two things is often a reactionary conservatism, which is equally problematic. Those who feel caught between these pathways are not satisfied with them, and they find in Peterson a nimble thinker who can’t be pigeonholed.
Myth and Meaning in Jordan Peterson is an attempt to understand from a Christian perspective what has caused so many people to resonate with Peterson.
Central to that resonance has been people’s perception of Peterson as a person of integrity.
He initially came to prominence through his insistence that there are standards higher than the three standard tribes of postmodernism, political correctness, or a reactionary conservatism, and you need not buy into one of the three. None of these positions are intellectually coherent, and he came along and said so. He came across as a person with integrity who paid the price for speaking with integrity, and people are drawn to that kind of honesty. He was clear that simply because he critiqued the Left, that didn’t mean he was part of the alt-right. The initial attraction was that he was willing to come on the public stage and face opposition for saying the emperor had no clothes. Then, as people began to trust him as a person with integrity, people gave credence to his reading of the Bible as relevant to people’s life journeys.
He catches people at different places in their questioning and directs them to the Bible.
In this collection of essays, contributors are exploring three aspects to the Jordan Peterson phenomenon, trying to find a middle way between hagiography and demonization. They are asking three sorts of questions:
- Why is he so prominent on the public stage? What is the gap that he’s filling that a lot of people are not speaking into, and doing in a way that’s creating diverse reactions?
- What is the good he’s contributing to the public discussion?
- What critical questions are there to ask of Peterson? What are some of his blind spots, his Achilles’ heels, his overreactions?
As they address these kinds of questions, the authors are also asking, Where will Peterson go from here, and where should he go? Peterson has shown that he is good at getting people into first gear. But inevitably you have to translate the personal into the communal, the ecclesial, the corporate. You can’t read the Bible and not transition from the personal to the nation and the church. This is where you run into people who are different from your- self. Peterson excels at getting people out of a personal morass, but what does this look like when you shift into second, third, and fourth gear? People are asking bigger questions. The degree to which he makes the transition to addressing more than the individual will determine whether he becomes a more significant public person with a longer-lasting impact.
The task of any mature person is how they bring together theory and practice in the personal, communal, and public. It’ll be interesting to see where Peterson goes—whether he makes this transition, and how, or whether he has his moment in the sun and fades from view.
This post is adapted from the introduction to Myth and Meaning in Jordan Peterson: A Christian Perspective edited by Ron Dart (Lexham Press, 2020).