Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Five Lessons We Can Learn from Jordan Peterson

In an excellent recent post entitled “Masculinity Without Permission”, Doug Wilson happened to name-check Jordan Peterson as someone who, despite not being a Christian, is actually more biblical on the subject of masculinity than many evangelical elders.

I won’t belabor that point; it’s Doug’s, and he said it better than I can. But I will go him one better: I think there are at least five things I’ve learned from Peterson that it would benefit my fellow evangelicals to consider seriously.

So here goes.

Be Courageous

University of Toronto professor Dr. Jordan B. Peterson became instantly infamous in the Fall of 2016 for the line, “I don’t recognize another person’s right to determine what pronouns I use to address them. I won’t do it.” As far as I know, despite the passage of Bill C-16 in Canada, he has yet to backpedal on this. And good for him: to acknowledge the delusions of the mentally ill as either authoritative or scientific is not just cowardly, it’s unbelievably hurtful to the very people it purports to be concerned about. I don’t believe a Christian can do it in good conscience, despite the potential cost.

For evangelicals, issues like this one are about more than just telling the truth, sticking to our principles and prioritizing the real good of others over telling them what they want to hear: we are obligated to obey God rather than men. Most of us have yet to be seriously tested by the rapid shifts away from the Christianized cultural norms with which we were raised. Certainly evangelicals have yet to be tested institutionally.

When the tests come, as they surely will, I trust we will be as courageous as Dr. Peterson has been to date. We have better reasons than he does for standing our ground, and a better hope to look forward to.

Hold Your Audience

For years I kidded myself that the internet has destroyed attention spans and that forty-five minute platform messages are no longer a realistic goal in the present generation. (I’m not suggesting for a moment that they were ever the best way to communicate truth!)

Lies, all lies. Whether talking about lobsters or walking secular liberals through the Old Testament, Peterson repeatedly holds audiences spellbound for upwards of two hours without a bathroom break. (Disclaimer: I am NOT suggesting we lengthen evangelical sermons!)

Our problem is not that Christianity is uninteresting. Our problem is that we have made it boring. Either we substitute training for gift, or we fill the platform with men who are neither trained nor gifted. It’s time to take James seriously: “Not many of you should become teachers.” Those that do teach need to work relentlessly at developing the gifts they have been given and not take for granted the privilege of addressing God’s people uninterrupted.

Many of us men have gotten sloppy about what we bring before the people of God. The bar is currently way too low. We need to raise it.

Say “I Don’t Know” When You Don’t Know

One of Peterson’s most refreshing habits is that he thinks before he speaks. There is a moment’s pause after a question, and then he carefully responds, choosing each word as if it matters. And when he hits a question he can’t answer, he candidly tells his audience, “I’m going to have to think about that some more.” Where he can’t offer a definitive answer, he will often point out principles and guidelines that will lead his audience in the right direction and leave it at that.

Evangelicals? Ouch. I have taken John Piper to task a number of times here for his habit of shooting from the lip when answering questions on the radio. He is far from the only evangelical culprit. “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame,” says the book of Proverbs. To “hear” is to answer the question that was asked, not the one you’d prefer to answer.

The speaker in an evangelical church service is rarely the smartest man in the room. That’s not a critique. But if we are not, we should not act as if we are. A little humility is in order.

Argue the Way You’d Want Someone to Argue with You

Where to start? Well, take on your opponent’s strongest argument, not his weakest. Be honest about facts that hurt your case. When you’re right, be polite without giving ground. Behave like your opponent has the best intentions even when he is a bully or a clown. Call a spade a spade; don’t waffle. Peterson can blurt out, “No! Wrong!” without coming across as offensive. That takes talent. (The occasional smile helps.)

I could cite so many examples of Christians who fail to argue fairly that they could become an ongoing ComingUntrue series (I promise I won’t). Quoting an evolutionist from 1940 so that you can fricassee his argument is shooting ducks in a barrel. Try looking up their latest talking points, not the ones they abandoned last century.

To be fair, I know lots of evangelicals who argue well and conduct themselves in exemplary fashion (John Lennox is an obvious one). We should all be imitating them, not the tactics of our opponents.

Seize the Moment

Since unintentionally becoming a media personality, Peterson has seized every possible opportunity offered him to share his thoughts on individual responsibility and dozens of other subjects. He talks to anyone who asks him — great or small, in agreement or virulently opposed — all the while battling illness and acknowledging that one of his biggest fears is misspeaking in public. One hopes he does not burn out.

But the Lord Jesus certainly lived that way, didn’t he. One could never accuse him of idleness or of passing up an opportunity to serve. And if we find his example too daunting, we could look to the apostles or to the great men of church history whose study habits and work ethic were consistent with the fact that “night is coming, when no one can work”; or, as Paul put it, “making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.”

I’m speaking to myself with that one. It’s a lesson I took to heart far too late.

Photo credit: Adam Jacobs [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


  1. Points well taken. I've been listening to Peterson, long before he came to Internet prominence with the pronoun/Bill C-51 issue. He's been on TVO for a long time e.g.
    One good thing about him, and it's a rare skill, that he has a mind which can speak in a well organized way about lots of down to earth subjects which we all face. He shames many believers who are afraid to speak or to discipline their mental faculties to do so.

    1. Absolutely agreed, Russell. He humbles me. I hope we both meet him in glory.

  2. On "hold your audience": you're quite right, Tom. Not many people can hold an audience like that, and make 45 minutes profitable from an edification point of view. But if a person can't, then he shouldn't be doing that. However, many people can be good listeners and meaningful participants in the context of a general discussion -- so maybe we need some format changes. Opening the platform to bad teaching, and doing it just for the sake of keeping up the 45 minute lecture format, is a really bad idea.

    1. D'accord! In the local church context, based on 40+ years of listening to sermons/messages I would say there are a rare few who can hold people's attention for more than 15 minutes. They present material in a boring an unorganized fashion. They are unaware of the learning and comprehension level of their audience. They are very very detached in their application to where people live their daily lives. Shame on them for being such poor communicators of God's truth. Shame on us for propping up a system which perpetuates bad messages.

  3. I had no idea how bad it had gotten until I went to see one of Peterson's Old Testament lectures last year. I was bowled over at the way he held 500 people's attention without any gimmicks. I know maybe five Bible teachers who can do that. And we have MUCH better material to work with ...