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Jordan Peterson’s spiritual appeal

The Toronto professor may not be a born-again believer, but he’s fueling a resurgence of interest in Christianity

Jordan Peterson’s spiritual appeal

Jordan Peterson (Facebook)

Recently I wrote an article about three public intellectuals who are influencing the minds of young people: Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, and Dennis Prager. They’re three very different styles of thinkers. Peterson is a dour-faced, thinking-out-loud Jungian psychologist in Toronto who can pontificate about life’s inevitable sufferings for three hours. Shapiro is a barb-tongued, Orthodox Jewish pundit who led the Never Trump movement. Prager is a down-to-earth, gregarious talk show host who has taught the Torah to Jews and non-Jews for decades. Shapiro and Prager both believe in God as a personal, divine being.

Peterson, on the other hand, takes a Darwinian yet transcendental interpretation of the Bible. For example: The cross, he writes, is “simultaneously, the point of greatest suffering, the point of death and transformation, and the symbolic centre of the world.” Christ is symbolically the one who “determines to take personal responsibility for the full depth of human depravity,” while Satan is the embodiment of “arrogance, incarnate; spite, deceit, and cruel, conscious malevolence. He is pure hatred of Man, God and, Being.” Meanwhile, God is “the highest value in the hierarchy of values,” Peterson says. God is “that in which we manifest necessary faith.” He is the “voice of conscience.”

If you’re confused by how all that fits into a clear religious worldview, don’t worry— so are his fans, who spend hours in internet chatrooms trying to decipher Peterson’s frustratingly ambiguous religious views, and probably so is Peterson himself, who’s still in the process of developing his own beliefs. Perhaps that’s why people find him so fascinating—here’s a highly intelligent man who so values the art of thinking, that every lecture is a public demonstration of him airing out his meditations, insights, and questions in an eloquent stream of consciousness.

Though Peterson gained instant fame in 2016 by poking a political landmine (he opposed a Canadian bill that added gender identity and gender expression to the Canadian Human Rights Act), people who follow his lectures know that the meat of his message is not political. Most of his lectures delve into deeper questions such as how to bear the tragedies and injustices of life, the struggle between good and evil, and how to find meaning in life.

When Peterson speaks of these ideas, his forehead knots into lines of earnestness, his voice tightens with urgency, and he paces and gazes at his audience, as though beseeching them to join him on his quest to understand the world—our world, together—a world so saturated with information and entertainment, yet so devoid of wisdom. Though he doesn’t profess to know it all, he articulates his ideas with such conviction that many listeners can’t help accepting what he says as truth.

That’s concerning for Peterson’s detractors, who see him as a sort of snake oil-peddling, pseudoscientific, pseudo-Christian missionary preaching to a cult of followers. From a gospel point of view, if Peterson is indeed a modern prophet, he’s a full-blown heretic. But here’s the most fascinating thing about Peterson’s appeal, at least from my perspective as a Christian: For some crazy reason, people are getting curious about Christianity because of him.

But here’s the most fascinating thing about Peterson’s appeal, at least from my perspective as a Christian: For some crazy reason, people are getting curious about Christianity because of him.

Paul Vander Klay is a pastor in Sacramento, Calif., who recognized this strange phenomenon and took advantage of it. When Vander Klay first watched Peterson’s 15-part lecture series about the Bible on YouTube and saw that he was speaking to a packed auditorium, he almost fell out of his chair: “I have friends who have churches in Toronto with plenty of empty seats, but people were paying $30 a pop to hear this guy ramble about the Bible! What’s going on?”

Vander Klay then began viewing every available material concerning Peterson, and soon realized that while Peterson was attempting to explain the psychological significance of the Bible, no Bible-believing Christian that he knew of was point-by-point dissecting (or refuting) Peterson’s ideas from a Biblical point of view. What’s more, Vander Klay saw comments in chatrooms from atheists and agnostics who said that after listening to Peterson, they wanted to learn more about Christianity. Peterson stoked their curiosity in God—but couldn’t lead them to Him.


Paul Vander Klay (YouTube)

So Vander Klay started his own YouTube channel dedicated to all things Peterson. Each time Peterson uploads a video of one of his lectures or interviews, Vander Klay uploads his own video discussing what Peterson said from a Reformed pastor’s perspective. Since then, Vander Klay’s YouTube channel has gained almost 7,900 subscribers, with some videos attracting tens of thousands of views. Compare that with Vander Klay’s church, which has about 50 mostly elderly attendees each Sunday.

Later, Vander Klay organized monthly meet-ups for anyone wanting to talk about Peterson. Each meeting draws about a dozen people ranging from Christians to agnostics to atheists, and discussion topics include not just Peterson but questions such as: “Is God real?” “What does Christianity teach?” “Did Jesus really rise from the dead in a physical body?” New people who had seen Vander Klay’s videos started visiting his church in Sacramento.

“It’s very strange,” Vander Klay told me, still chuckling in disbelief. “I couldn’t as a pastor have designed anything this good.” Before his YouTube videos, if he had tried to reach out to this group of skeptics, they would have shut their ears. But because of Peterson, these unbelievers are turning to the Bible with fresh curiosity, wondering why, if the Bible is so full of profound truths, they had avoided it for so long. Now they’re watching Vander Klay’s videos, and every day someone is emailing the pastor questions, or confiding in him their current struggles, or asking him out for coffee—and Vander Klay is only too happy to listen and point them to the gospel if they’re ready.

Peterson is not a born-again Christian, but he started something. People are tuning in. They perk up when Peterson advises them to “pick up your cross and walk up the hill.” But such pull-up-your-bootstraps self-reliance leads them up a very different hill than the one on which Christ bore the weight of the cross, then rose and conquered the grave.

Without fully recognizing it, many of Peterson’s fans are looking for a savior. At some point, they realize that Peterson is not a savior, and that he can only take them so far toward the one true Savior. So here’s the question for Christians: Are we ready to step in where Peterson leaves off, and provide not just good advice, but Good News?


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  • JerryM
    Posted: Tue, 08/07/2018 07:28 pm

    "Are we ready to step in where Peterson leaves off..."  I would also argue the reverse.  Peterson is stepping in where too many in the church are leaving off: He is boldly and courageously speaking truth when so many in the church are cowering in fear.

  • TxAgEngr
    Posted: Wed, 08/08/2018 04:22 pm

    Hooray for Paul Vander Klay!!! (I like the Schaefferian beard, too.)

  • Dick Friedrich
    Posted: Tue, 08/28/2018 05:46 pm

    Peterson's message is persuasive because it is in a language devoid of biblical terminology for the most part but contains truths found in natural law. People are drawn in unawares and find that it makes sense in contrast with the hollow and foolish messaging they are so often exposed to. They trust the message and Peterson's style make it all the more persuasive. From my point of view, anyone who can draw out the nuggets of gold found in Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn and even the relevance of Nietzsche can help us understand the importance of meaning in our lives. That's not far from acknowledging a loving Creator and Redeemer of our souls.