A few months ago, as Jordan Peterson and a group of evangelical pastors (including Jerry Falwell Jr.) were calmly talking to the 10,000 students gathered in Liberty University’s arena, a young man scrambled onto the stage pleading for Peterson to help him. “I’m unwell,” he cried, in the way adults sometimes do when they wish a parent would just take care of them. “I need help! I need help!” Security guards restrained him as he continued, sobbing, “I just wanted to meet you! I’m unwell. I want to be well.”
It was as if, like the diseased woman in the Gospel of Matthew, the young man wanted to touch the hem of Peterson’s robe, and thereby become healed.
He’s far from the only Christian to seek guidance or healing from the Kermit-voiced “public intellectual of our time.” When a church in Bishop, California, added 12 Rules for Life to their library, their newsletter explained that Peterson had a “blunt message” about “individual responsibility… especially helpful to those who work with young people.” A Presbyterian church in suburban Seattle hosted a series of men’s breakfasts where they discussed Peterson’s book: four rules per breakfast. Participants at a women’s retreat in DeWitt, Michigan, learned about the 12 rules over the course of six talks (“You’ll be presented with an antidote to the chaos of our day, in tips and suggestions, prayers and reflections”). A Tucson pastor has blogged about Peterson’s “lobster lessons” for faithful Christians, and a Mennonite leader in Alberta has a monthly Jordan Peterson book club with his three grown sons. And in March, the people of Norwalk, Connecticut, were invited to a lecture on 12 Rules for Life at St. Thomas the Apostle Church, where they could also enjoy a “Corned Beef & Cabbage Dinner.”
Rarely have Christians been so excited about someone they kinda doubt is actually Christian. Some call him a false prophet, a heretic, a fool with a messiah complex who’s “trying to be God.” Yet Peterson remains popular, especially with white male ministers who are Gen X and younger. Even those who think he’s a heretic believe the church has something to learn from him, if only because Peterson’s message is so appealing to men at a time when male church attendance is declining. (A recent study found that men only make up 39 percent of U.S. churchgoers.) For many Christians, the main question — the thing that keeps bringing them to the steak-eating Canadian psychologist — is this: What does Jordan Peterson have that the church doesn’t?
Peterson has been personally reluctant to identify himself with Christianity. When asked by one interviewer if he was Christian, Peterson answered, “I suppose the most straightforward answer to that is yes, although I think it’s — it’s — let’s leave it at yes.” When the interviewer pressed him further, asking if he believed that Christ literally rose from the dead, Peterson responded, “I cannot answer that question. And the reason is because… [a lengthy pause] Okay, let me think about it for a minute, see if I can come up with a reasonable answer to that.” (Another pause.) “Well, the first answer would be it depends on what you mean by Jesus.”
Though Peterson talks a lot about Christianity and has given a long series of lectures on the Bible, he’s agnostic on many of the articles of traditional Christian belief. If he believes Jesus was divine, it’s in the sense that all consciousness is divine and Jesus merely tapped into that divinity a little better than the rest of us. Peterson might be reluctant to come out and say it, but he seems primarily interested in Christianity as a vessel for his ideas about meaning. He’s a psychologist; if he were talking to a client, he would be talking to them about their parents, not someone else’s. Likewise, he and most of his audience live in a society shaped by the Christian tradition, so it makes sense for him to talk about those stories rather than the Koran or the Mahabharata.
Unlike evangelical Christians, Peterson has little use for God as a person we can have a relationship with. Instead, his God is an umbrella term for various metaphysical abstractions. In a debate with Sam Harris, Peterson defined God not as the Lord of Lords or the Prince of Peace, but as “the voice of conscience,” “the highest value in the hierarchy of values” and the process by which “we imaginatively and collectively represent the existence and action of consciousness across time.”
This kind of talk manages to annoy Christians and atheists alike. An evangelical writer remarked in the Federalist that Peterson’s definition was “so malleable as to be functionally meaningless.” Meanwhile, a Sam Harris subredditor said Peterson should “come up with a new word” since “the word god is already taken”; another said his spiel sounded “like a parody of some Deepak Cophra new-age bullshit.” Whatever Peterson’s religion is, it isn’t the stuff of tent revivals.
And yet, like a tent-revival preacher who swoops in for a few days, Peterson does get people riled up who had previously been un-riled, and those people sometimes make their way to church when the revival leaves town. Pastors call Peterson a “gateway drug” to Christianity for “twentysomething guys.” For many people, Peterson’s lectures and videos are the first time they’ve seen Christianity taken seriously, and even if Peterson isn’t himself Christian, he makes them wonder if they might be.
The Peterson effect can even work indirectly, as when Sacramento minister Paul Vander Klay posted a video about Peterson on his YouTube channel and saw his subscribers increase from less than 200 to more than 2,000 in about a week. Then people started coming to his church, saying they’d never come to church before in their lives but they liked Peterson and liked what Vander Klay had said about Peterson and wondered if there was something to this whole church thing. Vander Klay now has more than 12,000 subscribers on YouTube, and his channel page features a playlist of 379 videos that “touch on Jordan Peterson,” in addition to a 36-video series focused on Peterson’s Bible lectures. He also hosts a monthly Peterson meetup, and even got to interview Peterson himself.
And again, it’s not just that Peterson speaks to unchurched people — he speaks to unchurched men. As evangelical writer Wyatt Graham has lamented: “I’ve watched church after church after church attract two-thirds to three-fourths women. Why is that? Why isn’t Christianity more appealing to men?” Perhaps by figuring why Peterson is so appealing to men, the church can recalibrate itself and win them back.
The answer, many Christians think, lies in Peterson’s central thesis: that meaning is found by achieving a balance between chaos and order. When Garrett, a chaplain at a Christian college in rural Tennessee read 12 Rules for Life, this part of Peterson’s argument made sense to him: “The extreme end of chaos is anarchy; the extreme end of order is tyranny.” And both Garrett and Peterson understand this in gendered terms as well, with the male spirit tending toward order and the female toward chaos. In Garrett’s own experience as a husband and a pastor, marriages typically suffer whenever the man (order) or the woman (chaos) gets too much power.
Garrett also sees this tug-of-war happening in the church. The Christian god is simultaneously one of grace and judgment, and the church suffers when it fails to wrestle with that paradox. If Christianity leans too much toward grace (chaos), then Christians feel like they don’t need to do anything; they’ve already been saved, and they can just chill until Jesus comes back. But if Christianity leans too much toward judgment (order), the church becomes cruel and exclusionary, and Christians fear they’re damned no matter what they do.
Lately, Garrett argues, the church’s pendulum has been swinging away from judgment/order and toward grace/chaos, and as a result, many men feel alienated. When the church preaches about God’s free grace and nothing else, men feel like they’re being told they’re no longer needed. They get restless; they don’t know what to do with themselves. Garrett has noticed, however, that whenever a church undertakes some construction or renovation project — when there’s physical work that needs to be done — male church attendance goes up.
One of Peterson’s most prominent Christian champions is Robert Barron, the Roman Catholic bishop and YouTuber. In a conversation with Peterson, Barron said that “young men… are falling away” from the church “in droves” because of the last half-century’s “softening” of Christianity. The church no longer provided an opportunity for heroism or adventure; it was simply a place to receive grace.
It’s striking how intertwined this talk of grace and judgment is with talk of the masculine and the feminine. The theologian Alastair Roberts says the church has a shortage of “manly and courageous preachers,” having abandoned “responsibility” and God’s call to action for a “flaccid empathy.” Esther O’Reilly writes that too few pastors are able “to speak into men’s lives with a strong and authoritative masculine voice,” because they have capitulated “to every new demand of the broader culture” and are unwilling “to stand for anything.”
Peterson himself recently went on a long tangent about a famous line from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “The meek shall inherit the earth.” Peterson said that verse had “always bothered” him. “No way, that’s not right,” he argued. It didn’t mesh with his own understanding of virtue: “Whatever goodness is… it isn’t harmlessness. It’s not emasculation and castration. It’s not weakness. It’s not the inability to fight.”
So Peterson did some ramshackle Googling, convinced that Jesus couldn’t have meant meek as in meek meek, and came up with his own translation: “Those who have weapons and know how to use them but still keep them sheathed will inherit the earth.”
If the constant preaching and singing about free grace has turned off male churchgoers, then perhaps the solution is to tell churchgoers that yes, they are saved, but that means they now need to stand up straight with their shoulders back, and set their houses in order. Men love to be told that kind of shit.
And if it takes a Jungian carnivore grifter to teach that to the church, all the better. Perhaps Peterson sees Christianity as a vessel for his maps-of-meaning and rules-of-life gobbledygook, but Christians by and large don’t seem to mind. After all, they suspect he is a vessel for God, whether he wants to be or not.
Garrett compares Peterson to Simon the Magician, whom the disciples saw casting out demons in Jesus’ name when in fact he was not a follower of Jesus. When they reported this to Jesus, he told them not to worry, for “whoever is not against us is for us.” As a Christian, Garrett isn’t sure Peterson is on his team — he’s especially skeptical of Peterson’s performative humility — but he doesn’t think Peterson is on the opposing team either.
So he’s cautious when it comes to Peterson. Garrett read 12 Rules for Life (“a good self-help book,” now shelved in his office with the other self-help books) to help him understand what men need today from the church, and he’s included it on a class syllabus as suggested reading. But he’d never recommend the book, or Peterson in general, to someone who hadn’t already brought him up. He’s afraid a book of rules like Peterson’s smacks too much of “legalism,” and doesn’t leave enough room for the power of grace. “My responsibility is to Christ first,” he tells me.
He stops me, though, when we’re almost done talking: “Wait, that wasn’t Simon the Magician.” The man who was casting out demons was never named. The story of Simon was a rather different one — a sorcerer who drew great crowds with his impossible feats, and who was so impressed by the miracles performed by Christ’s apostles through the power of the Holy Spirit, that he offered the apostles silver if they would only share some of that power with him.