September 19, 2018
So (to use a Petersonism). Until March of this year, none of this stuff was on my radar. I'm a faithful National Post reader so there's no doubt I'd read about Jordan Peterson before then, but he was just out there, with Justin Trudeau, as a news maker. I suppose the turning point would be the evening that I had free, when I was cruising the internet, and I started listening to a YouTube Peterson lecture. I don't remember exactly which one, but it was something about Post Modernism taking over the world. My back was sore, so I had my desk in standing mode, and before you know it I'd stood through an hour and a half of lecture and an hour of Q&A. Within a matter of weeks I had a bunch of shortcuts on my desktop, then a folder, which now has six subfolders. By the end of May I had bought "12 Rules for Life" four times and I was proselytizing after church.
It was new to me, but I was a Johnny-come-lately. For my two sisters, Peterson was already old hat. One had derived strong, personal guidance from his ideas as early as two years ago. Another had attended a number of his Biblical Series lectures in Toronto in 2017. (So much for the angry, young male caricature of Peterson assemblies.) I delved into Peterson videos with fascination, noting the large crowds and standing ovations at sold-out venues and the vast number of results while searching for Jordan Peterson YouTube videos (1,140,000). I observed my own reactions to what I heard and read - the repeated Ah-hahs and Wows and the twigging of purpose, meaning and hope in my long dormant lobster psyche. What's going on here?
The course was announced by painting Peterson as an "incredibly controversial evolutionary psychologist". But that is entirely beside the point. That is not the core of either Peterson's work or its reception. People are not listening to Peterson because he's controversial but because he speaks deeply about the meaning that we clothe ourselves with -- we understand the predicament of being an emperor without clothes. Peterson hangs his laundry from an evolutionary clothesline, but it's the clothing that matters. Lots of people love his clothing and Christians find that it hangs even more securely from our 'God is real' framework.
I find it fascinating to compare Peterson's lectures of ten years ago to those more recent. The message is remarkably consistent. The biblical stories that he was telling then come back over and over again. But the audience ten years ago is small and the applause is polite, whereas lately it's large and enthusiastic. So, what's happened in the mean time? Are people are seeing their emperors with new eyes? Has our culture gotten 'ears to hear?'
Peterson's first book, 'Maps of Meaning', came out in 1999, and it's said that the writing of that took 13 years, so we're seeing a 32 year development of thought, which is certainly no flash in the pan. It seems that Peterson's university student audiences over the years have been appreciative of his lectures and have rated him highly. Peterson was also featured regularly in TVO series since 2008, with very little kickback. Over the last four years or so Peterson has been remarkably savvy in collecting and presenting his work online. His website is comprehensive, presenting many lectures in video, podcast and transcript form. In 2017 Jordan Peterson presented a 15-part lecture series entitled "The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories," from May to December, in the 500 seat Isabel Bader Theater, across from the Museum in Toronto. These lectures all sold out, and the two and half hour long YouTube video archives of these lectures have crazy statistics like 2.8 million views. That kind of popularity is hard to fathom in a culture that has increasingly viewed the Bible as archaic nonsense. Since January of this year, with the publication of his second book '12 Rules for Life', Peterson has participated in over 70 events, around the world, in large theaters, to sold out audiences. There are more than 30 more events scheduled for the remainder of the year. Many of these theaters are huge - seating 2-4 thousand.
The guy sure can talk. I'm amazed at his ability to stroll around the stage, speaking without notes for hours. I would give my eye tooth for that gift. It's always taken me far too long to come up with the words to say what I'm thinking. But even more compelling are the emotions that bubble up with Peterson's words. He is not shy about expressing his amazement or sadness or anger and he says things like he means them. I'm stuck with my proverbial, northern Dutch taciturnity, but I can probably still learn something from Peterson about really getting myself out there.
A common refrain among those who are taken by Peterson is that he says things that they've always know but didn't know how to express. That's certainly true for me. There has been no radical change in my beliefs, just a deepening. Because of my tradition, I know the Bible well, so when Peterson makes Biblical references or dives into Bible stories I'm not coming in out of the dark. But the flash of recognition that I experience then is delightfully invigorating.
The fact that Peterson is not what you would call a born again Christian only strengthens the effect. Peterson is not compelled to be orthodox, so when he speaks Biblically I come away with a new appreciation for the necessity of my own belief. I get the sense that Peterson is reverse engineering God, examining culture to divine what the prime mover must be. So many have tried this trick and failed. Peterson's success is a gift, for sure, possible only because he's shrugged off our culture's rational, material way of looking at things and taken seriously our more deeply seated moral compass and its Biblical underpinnings.
For me, the insights that have come to me through all of this center around these two things; Sacrifice and the Word. The first is our way of being in relation to each other and to God. The second is the means by which we can be effective. But that exploration is for another time. I'll say only that I'm looking forward to working this out for myself.
Henry J. de Jong