Developing A Christian Perspective on The Jordan Peterson Phenomenon

Warren Mills with Gordon Preece

Christians face a bewildering array of issues today that many consider threatening to their democratic liberties. Regardless of which side of the conservative v progressive political debate you are on, the current situation for Christians sometimes seems ominous. Faced with intractable sexual scandals among clergy, public opinion surveys and census data suggest a popular view of antagonism, apathy and irrelevancy toward the role of Christianity in the public square. Many are bogged down in fear, bewilderment, complacency or self-interest, or otherwise caught up in social activism. The majority’s malaise hit me recently from an anecdote I heard while attending a neighbour’s funeral. While ailing, she was offered a visit by a priest. To the crowd’s delight the speaker recalled her telling the Rev’d to irreverently “f… off.”

Perhaps only a minority today manage to light a candle rather than curse the darkness or virtue signal their political or identity issue correctness (of either side).

Christian apologist Os Guinness’ The Dust of Death suggested that “Western culture is marked at present by a distinct slowing of momentum, or … a decline in purposefulness and an increase in cultural introspection.” This is often traced back to either the enlightened agnosticism of “religion’s cultured despisers” or Nietzsche’s “God is Dead” pronouncement. This is galling for Christians like Nick Spencer tracing their faith’s fundamental influence on the creation of Western Democracy and its exaltation of human dignity and rights. Faith in democracy is declining among the young, as the framework and scaffolding of faith that upheld it is dismantled while the building remains unfinished. The rise of populist demagogues and abstract doctrines of total diversity, chaos, nihilism and despair are offered as distractions from the titanic threats of unsustainable growth and environmental extinction.

Emerging unannounced from this melee is Jordan Peterson, a Canadian professor of psychology who some see as the most influential public intellectual in the western world. Peterson, along with many other academics, intellectuals, and writers have created a new community of commentators known ironically as the “Intellectual dark web” for their use of social media to engage a global audience against tribal identity politics (by Left and Right) in favour of personal liberty and responsibility. This group comprises some like Jonathan Haight previously identified with the “progressive left” which they abandoned because of its hypocrisy and attacks on freedom of speech, conscience and a posture and tone of respectful dialogue. This emphasis has gained support from a spectrum of classical conservatives, dismissed as hard Right, despite Peterson and co. claiming to be classical liberals.

Peterson is a polymath and now public intellectual due to attracting millions of followers with YouTube videos and interviews such as with the intellectually outgunned Kathy Newman of BBC Channel 4, which has been viewed 50 million times. In addition to conducting large public meetings globally in support of his best-selling 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Peterson had previously become known for retelling Biblical stories in public lectures and a previous book, Maps of Meaning, as part of his diagnoses of social decline. Although he maintains this dialogue is essentially religious, he is not presenting the Bible as a Christian, not sharing orthodox Christian faith.

Yet as a theist, Peterson constantly refers to the Bible as the predominant foundation of Western culture, inspired by the insights of Carl Jung’s “archetypes” or massive meaning structures. His notoriety was first established when he took a stand against his university in Toronto and against Canadian legislation, regarding the use of compelled speech relating to transgender identity. Since then, he has become a global spokesperson academic freedom.

This, however, is no mere intellectual abstraction for Peterson who engages emotionally and personally with his audience as he tells tearful stories of being stopped in the street by young men explaining that he has saved their live because they heard his message of self-responsibility at a critical moment. Peterson convinces many to start to “clean up their room” while others go on to restore broken relationships and reactivate life-transforming Christian faith.

To coincide with Peterson’s return to Australia in February 2019, a group of Melbourne based Christians are hosting a series of meetings to record and present his views in a pre-recorded video conference involving Jordan Peterson with former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson as moderator, and Christian Reformed Church pastor Paul VanderKlay from Sacramento California. VanderKlay has become recognized as an authority on the Peterson phenomenon, gaining unofficial status as pastor to the Intellectual Dark Web.

The recorded Video Conference will be presented later at St James Old Cathedral in King Street West Melbourne on Saturday, 30th of March in a day-long conference focusing on becoming better informed of the Peterson phenomenon and its implications for society and church: Is it a threat or opportunity for the Christian message, both in its medium and message?

The conference will provide a forum for Christian leaders and thinkers s to explore the Peterson phenomenon and to dialogue his community of followers to:

  • Understand the phenomenon's origins, dynamics, trends and appeal to massive audiences where Peterson’s constant use of biblical (and non-biblical) archetypes is exposing biblical principles to a generation ignorant of its meaning.
  • Create awareness of the potential reach and power of social media like YouTube etc, gain insights and develop social media skills to advance the Christian message to seekers.
  • Interpret revealed social and spiritual needs and yearnings and propose an informed presentation of Jesus Christ
  • Provide insightful commentary and leadership from an expert Christian interpreter, Paul VanderKlay.
  • Consider Peterson’s relationship to Christianity as a contact point and how (or if) the church should connect and at points correct it.
  • Provide future insights and develop a plan for future action.

Further free meetings will be held where Paul VanderKlay will speak at 10:00am at Spotswood Anglican Church on Sunday 31st March and again at 7:00pm, at St James Old Cathedral.

The organizers seek to answer the question: Who will answer and what do Christians have to say in response to the questions asked by this generation? Will the church remain silent or will it respond by speaking biblically, courageously, justly and prophetically? Will it use all the available resources and insights, not just to bemoan current events, but to provide a solution to human problems with spiritual insight, clarity and power? This conference will inform Christians of how YouTube provides individuals and groups with an almost unlimited opportunity to create and publish videos to a global audience. Judging by Peterson’s proven ability to influence many people through YouTube, this phenomenon is being compared by some to the revolutionary role of the printing press and Gutenberg Bible.