How to Understand the Jordan Peterson Phenomenon

Peterson has stolen the song about order and meaning we Christians use to sing so well. It’s time we steal it back.

So many evangelicals are fascinated and concerned about Peterson because he  exemplifies the kind of popular thought leader our movement has not produced since Schaeffer. Personality alone, though, cannot fully explain the popularity of Peterson. His appeal is due largely to his ability to deliver an inspiring, albeit pseudo-Christian, counter-cultural message for an anxious age.

 

If you haven’t yet heard of Jordan Peterson, you soon will. The Canadian professor and psychologist is the author of the international bestselling book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. His YouTube channel has nearly a million subscribers and more than 40 million views. The New York Times columnist David Brooks describes him as “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now.”

And talking about what Peterson means has practically become a requirement for Christian writers and thinkers (for example, hereherehereherehere, and here).

With all the available commentary, why should anyone read another article about Peterson? While there may not be much more to add, I think two observations can help us make sense of the Peterson phenomenon.

The Jungian Francis Schaeffer

When trying to explain the sudden appearance and appeal of influential thinkers, we often compare them to those who came before. Such analogies quickly break down, of course, because differences between individuals are more numerous than are their shared qualities. For example, the meteoric rise of Peterson is reminiscent of Marshall McLuhan, another Canadian academic who helped explain the modern world. Yet on the most relevant points, Peterson is not at all like McLuhan.

A more fitting—though somewhat absurd—comparison would be to say that Peterson is reminiscent of Francis Schaeffer.

Schaeffer was a pastor-theologian, a “missionary to the intellectuals” rather than a true public intellectual. But for many Christians (including me), Schaeffer changed the way we viewed the world. Instead of being forced to choose either atheistic existentialism or Protestant fundamentalism, Schaeffer offered a third way—a Kuyperian-style Calvinism as a world and life view.

Through this lens, Schaeffer offered a perspective that was both personal and global. He showed how the Christian worldview could both help evangelicals follow their faith with intellectual integrity and also serve as an interpretive tool to explain everything in the world, from art to philosophy.

While Schaeffer’s theological views weren’t particularly innovative, his empathetic, pastoral concern—which came across even in his writings—helped expand his audience and his influence.

In a similar way, Peterson’s core message isn’t especially original (it’s mostly repackaged Jungianism, as we’ll consider below). His appeal is his genuine concern for individuals and their flourishing—an unusual trait for a public intellectual, and one that has made him a different kind of missionary.

So many evangelicals are fascinated and concerned about Peterson because he  exemplifies the kind of popular thought leader our movement has not produced since Schaeffer.

Personality alone, though, cannot fully explain the popularity of Peterson. His appeal is due largely to his ability to deliver an inspiring, albeit pseudo-Christian, counter-cultural message for an anxious age.

Seeing the World Through the Three-Axis Model 

In the 1960s, feminists and student activists adopted the phrase “the personal is political.” They meant that experiences were affected by political structures and policies, and that an examination of the private world could provide insights for our public lives. Peterson has subverted this view by showing how the political should lead us to focus more on the personal.

Peterson’s views resonate because they don’t align neatly with the standard political labels (conservative, liberal, libertarian, and so on). Instead, they capture the underlying structure.

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