Myth and Meaning In Jordan Peterson: Chapter 1

I’ve never cared much for Jordan Peterson. I understand from a sociological point of view why young, secular disaffected types are fascinated with him. But it’s hard to understand why some conservatives in general and some Christians in particular seem enamored beyond the sort of interest that might produce a cultural analysis of the phenomenon. I tried to read his book 12 Rules, but couldn’t get very far as it seemed to recycle too much of the little I had already heard from YouTube, podcast interviews, and a debate with Zizek.[1] The debate with Zizek is worthy of its own analysis. The mood of the audience was… unusual.

The book Myth and Meaning in Jordan Peterson: A Christian Perspective looks like it might provide the cultural analysis mentioned above. As with almost all books that are a collection of essays, I expect this will be a mixed bag. If I feel like it, I’ll share my thoughts on the various chapters as I go.

Chapter 1: Jordan Peterson and the Chaos of Our Secular Age by Bruce Riley Ashford

It’s a good essay that will make sense of the Peterson phenomenon for those who weren’t familiar with Taylor et al.. The criticisms of Peterson near the end of the essay are, likewise, good but like the book’s introduction, don’t make explicit (to my liking) the degree of the antithesis between Peterson and the Christian outlook. It’s not simply that Peterson’s “as if” doesn’t go far enough or that his “solution is insubstantial” (28). He explicitly presents a counter-narrative to the biblical one. (Though maybe my impression of how explicit I would have liked Ashford to be is being prejudiced by the introduction.)

A quote from Ashford:

the encouragement we should gain from Peterson’s example is not first or foremost that he has advice we should follow. Instead, his meteoric rise is proof that many of our secular or nominally Christian neighbors are experiencing a moment in which their hunger for transcendence is evident. Peterson’s sold-out talks, bestselling books, and gargantuan social media stats are evidence that our neighbors are recognizing the malaise of our secular age and are, it seems, willing to live as if God exists and the biblical narrative is mythically true.(29)

But didn’t we already know that? Maybe not. Maybe Peterson “is proof” in that we can point to him as a concrete example of the issues highlighted by someone like Charles Taylor. And although it would be reading too much into Ashford to attribute this error to him (though there is perhaps a hint of it in his talk of “a golden opportunity”), I think too many Christians have rushed to the conclusion that Peterson is proof that there is a an itch that Christians have simply failed to scratch. That may be naive.

There’s two possibilities here. One is that Christians have failed to address the need for transcendence that so many young, secular men are searching for. Another is that young, secular men have spurned the type of transcendence Christianity has to offer.

Of course it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Both can be true to different degrees or in different spheres. There are so many churches and Christian organizations in America, along such a broad spectrum, that it would be easy to point to anecdotal evidence of this one church or organization that failed to reach an otherwise reachable young, secular person. It’s also easy to point to churches and organizations that, I think, are doing all that can be expected of them and yet the culture around them isn’t budging.

Recently pundits have drawn attention to the way in which the disparate impact of COVID-19 across America has made evident how different life is for so many people that we often think of as constituting a monolithic “American culture” or “American economy.” I would suggest that this variety extends to “American Christianity” to some extent. If I could also paint in broad strokes for a moment though, “American Christianity” has a long history of self-flagellation narratives about how our culture would be different if only Christians fulfilled their simple duty (IIRC, cf. Thomas S. Kidd, America’s Religious History). These sorts of narratives tend to ring true in the ear of Western culture generally for reasons that would be interesting to explore.

Perhaps it’s naive to think that Peterson’s secular devotees would be Christianity’s devotees “if only…”. Perhaps Peterson’s popularity is not just because he attempts to provide transcendence to those who have lost meaning, but precisely because he attempts to provide transcendence without taking Christianity seriously — that is, as historically grounded — and he does so while exercising the authority of the new priestly, scientific class. Perhaps Christians would find that upon making the most of their “golden opportunity” and, consequently, contradicting Peterson’s self-salvation narrative — while lacking his priestly credentials — many of Peterson’s devotees would “turn away grieving” like the rich young man (Matthew 19:18), or perhaps look down their noses at Christians who take these myths seriously, unlike the sophisticated reading of Peterson who packages it in the science of evolutionary psychology and Jung.

To whatever extent that may be true, Peterson doesn’t represent a step forward into “a genuinely contemporary construal of monotheism for a modern world” (10) nor is it a retrieval of our lost enchantment (17–18). It is, rather, more akin to a step backwards towards enlightenment deism.

(This isn’t an excuse for not reaching out to Peterson and Peterson’s followers with the substantial solution of the gospel. It is simply an attempt to arrive at a more accurate assessment of how things might stand.)

[1]That’s probably coming from a position of relative ignorance, since I’ve listened to and seen very little of Peterson via the aforementioned media in relation to his overall output.

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John Bowling

Throwing half-baked ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks.