Liar, Lunatic, Legend, or Light: Who Is Jordan Peterson?

People do not want to be talked down to in our time; deep down in their bones, they want someone to challenge them, elevate them, and call them to become something greater than they are.

There is no one who has made a bigger splash as a public intellectual in recent decades than Jordan Peterson. His remarkable popularity, and widely-debated significance, reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s categories for a much greater public figure. In updated form, just who is Peterson, anyway—liar, lunatic, legend, or light?

Though Peterson had amassed a devoted and sizeable following through his YouTube lectures on psychology and spirituality, his star was by no means fixed in the sky before this year. A professor at the distinguished University of Toronto, with a significant stint at Harvard University before Toronto, Peterson became a household name when his conversation with English journalist Cathy Newman went viral. In the contentious interview, Peterson made a genuine effort to handle Newman’s queries, finding himself on the defensive as she intimated, repeatedly, that he supported workplace inequality between the genders. To the fair-minded viewer, it was obvious that Peterson supported no such thing; to the reader of his recent book, 12 Rules for Life, it was clear that Newman had no intention of engaging Peterson’s substantial, multi-layered, and wholly unique text. She was out to get Peterson. She was soundbite-hunting.

The interview is without exaggeration one of the most tension-filled videos you’ll find online. Peterson is on his heels for much of the time until around the 22-minute mark. Then, Newman asks him a question about free speech, and why he has the right to advance his views over the views of others. He responds by pointing out that Newman has interrogated him, has not felt any inhibitions about making him feel uncomfortable through the pursuit of her own views, and squares the circle by asking whether others shouldn’t have the same opportunity. It is a forceful and truly brilliant response, and it stops Newman—a formidable and accomplished TV personality—in her tracks.

Peterson then dances in the end zone: “Ha! Gotcha.” The hunted has become the hunter.

Whatever one’s views on Peterson, this is easily one of the most consequential moments on television I’ve ever witnessed. I viewed the debate as one genuinely interested in what both parties had to say; each of them raises important questions. It becomes clear over the course of the discussion that Peterson is a most unique figure, and that this conversation functions as something of a proxy for the clash of ideas in our time. Yet though Peterson was stalked by Newman as a stereotype (like much of the media’s embarrassingly histrionic coverage of him), he is not a talking-head from the conservative lecture circuit. He is not an unctious writer simply driving his brand forward through clever catch-phrases. He is not an alt-right activist. Instead, he comes across as exactly what he is: a genuine intellectual in an age of anti-intellectualism, a professor acquainted with ancient conversations and man’s quest for meaning, a psychologist who knows how to handle difficult conversational dynamics and who exudes others-aware self-possession.

Jordan Peterson defies the stereotypes. He does not fit our modern molds. He is, again, a genuine intellectual of the sort one encounters in grand lecture halls on university campuses, at bookstore readings of arcane texts, in quiet rumination around blazing fireplaces on the deepest things of life. Peterson’s book mirrors the man. 12 Rules for Lifeis hard to pin down, honestly. It is partly a fascinating psychological engagement with biblical theology; partly a Stoic call to approach life from the underside, not the sun-strewn lounges of the positive-thinking crowd; partly a conservative commentary on the state of Western culture. It is like no other book I have ever read, just as Peterson—though of the recognizable, if diminishing, genus homo intellectualis—is like no other public intellectual we’ve seen in recent years. He is more like Christopher Lasch, Philip Rieff, and Reinhold Niebuhr than anyone in modern vintage.

Peterson’s text has connected at a visceral level for the three reasons mentioned above, broadly speaking. Firstly, our world has lost sight of spirituality and theology. We do not know anymore that we are made in the image of God, and thus made to know God, and thus will find fulfillment only in God. We do not look to God and the Bible for ultimate meaning anymore. Peterson does, though to be sure, he does not approach the Bible and the Christian faith from a clearly evangelical standpoint. He sees biblical history, and much of biblical teaching, as “archetypal,” and he believes in evolution. He studies biblical narratives through the lens of psychologists like Jung and Rogers, reading the central existential reality of mankind as a struggle against chaos (not a struggle against an actual Satan, the stakes of which are an actual heaven and an actual hell). This is not to say that Peterson is not a spiritually-interested person of some kind; he seems, from my limited reckoning, to even now be sorting out what exactly he believes. At base, he views the biblical narrative as the narrative by which we should read life, with a strong assist from the psychological guild. We must struggle against suffering (often self-caused) and visible darkness. Hence the subtitle: An Antidote to Chaos.

I suspect that many readers and viewers of Peterson have little sense of the deeper tensions in his work. They are coming to him because he is providing them with what postmodernity has taken off the table: a metanarrative by which to frame human existence. Here we land upon the second major reason for Peterson’s popularity. Over against our secularist era, our man-centered moment, our self-celebrating culture, Peterson approaches life from the shadows, and counsels like a Stoic. Life is not triumphant in his view, at least not much of the time. Life is pain. We thrive not by winning in our vocation and taking the spoils, but by facing down the madness and horror of a world gone awry. I sense that many readers appreciate this perspective more, instinctually, than the current worldview on offer in the elitist classroom. We have not evolved into tranquility; we are at war now more than ever. We cannot speak peace over our life and magically make sadness go away; we suffer. We cannot be truly happy by playing the victim, and by handing Leviathan—which lurks all around us like a menacing giant just barely out of view—our agency and freedom; we will find happiness by taking charge of our days, and by living in accord with wisdom, common sense, and reason.

Everyone does not get a trophy. Peterson calls bluff on our sunny expectations. He draws throughout the book on chilling episodes from his past and his professional practice. More than almost any writer I’ve encountered outside of theologians who faithfully expound the biblical doctrine of total depravity, Peterson has looked into the human heart. He knows it is not all bad, but that there is a wildness and a restless evil not only in the serial killers and the political tyrants, but in all of us, in the most demure student, in the most buttoned-up PTA president, in the elderly person who seems docile from afar. Peterson does what we are trained not to do today: he believes in good and evil, and he calls them by their given name. Beyond this, as noted, he reckons with suffering. His accounting of his daughter Mikhaila’s bodily trials alone will leave the reader moved and mourning this dear young woman’s travails. (The spirit of the daughter, though, mirrors that of the father—she is a fighter, this is apparent.)

This last remark touches on why, thirdly, Peterson is so popular today. He first achieved a good deal of fame by standing up and declaring in Canada—he is Canadian—that he would not be forced by his government to use transgender pronouns. He pointed out numerous times after he took this public stand that he would in fact use the preferred pronouns of his students in class, for example, but he drew the line at the fascistic compelling of speech by the government. In doing so, he accomplished two things: he made himself a target of almost unbelievable amounts of abuse and attacks, and he gave a voice to millions upon millions upon millions of people in Canada, America, and Western society who are watching as our public leaders embrace, and public policies champion, un-reality. We are now legislating fiction and enforcing insanity. Peterson, nearly alone in the Western academy, decided he had had enough. He spoke up, and though he has surely paid a price for his courage, he has almost singlehandedly galvanized a massive body of people who agree with him.

I encourage thoughtful people everywhere to do what we should do with controversial figures: read their work. Ponder their ideas. Take the exchange of views seriously. As is clear, I do not agree with Jordan Peterson in all things; I have major disagreements with him, not least in the area of theology and psychology. It is my genuine hope and prayer that he will embrace Christianity not merely as archetype, but as reality, reality brought to symphonic conclusion in the actual, life-giving, sin-destroying, wrath-absorbing death of Jesus Christ for sinners like us. Whether he does or not, though, Peterson is a figure worth engaging. He is the most important psychologist in Western society at least since Dr. Spock, and possibly since Sigmund Freud. He does not follow standard tracks in his thought, and he demands one think critically. This is another reason why he has drawn such a large following. People do not want to be talked down to in our time; deep down in their bones, they want someone to challenge them, elevate them, and call them to become something greater than they are.

Peterson reminds me of a professor at my alma mater, Bowdoin College. This professor, a philosopher, had a long, wizardlike beard. He walked around campus on a daily basis, muttering genially (as best we could tell) to himself. This man was a most unique figure, but he had an interest that was once common in our society, and is now waning: he believed in asking the toughest questions, and probing the hardest matters. This is what colleges used to stand for—the liberal arts, the humanities, teaching students to think. If this vision is increasingly lost at many secular schools, we may know that it lives on—to an extent—in the professorate.

I have not yet accounted for one last reason for Peterson’s huge following. Peterson is, I suspect, serving as the father figure to a generation (or two) of men who either did not have one, or did not have a virtuous one. Watch him in his interviews. He is composed. He is collected. He dresses and looks like a man, and has a bit of panache about him. He speaks carefully, but he also speaks strongly, and convictionally. But, interestingly, he also defies certain stereotypes of the alpha male (he is undoubtedly an alpha, which is part of why he is hunted by so many keyboard-safarists). He is gentle. He gives off a sense of compassion. When he writes and speaks about trying to help patients in his clinical practice, you get the sense that he really does want to help them, and not in a blustery way. He speaks at some length in 12 Rules for Lifeof the need to listen, and you can tell that he has listened to people for hour upon hour. He seems genuinely interested in people, in sum, and cares for them. He loves his daughter, and feels keenly her pain.

Note that true biblical manhood calls for a similar kind of character, a special kind: gospel-driven character (see 1 Timothy 3, for example). I could sum up Peterson’s appeal with this: he is essentially the elder, the father figure, that our secularizing culture no longer has (that it even now works to drive into the shadows) but that the church still, by grace, offers men. 12 Rules for Life is not aimed at men only, as anyone can see who actually reads the book. But many men in particular are struggling today. They are angry. They are confused. They do not know how to treat or approach a woman. They do not know what to with their manhood, their testosterone, the instincts in them that surge in ways both good and ill. They don’t have work, which gives much purpose and direction to a man’s life. Many of them are from broken homes, and as studies bear out in abundance, men are far more volatile than women when emerging from such contexts. Men—angry, fatherless, un-shepherded men—commit nearly 100% of our society’s most violent crimes. Men have tremendous capacity, we could say, for good and ill.

The stunning response to Peterson’s material shows us what we already know as Christians: we must help modern men. Like Jonathan Edwards—subject of this just-published book—we must preach the gospel to everyone we can, man or woman, boy or girl. (Many women clearly like the strong masculinity they see in Peterson, too, and appreciate his ideas besides.) But we must also take care to make men from boys. God has staked the future of his church on men; if we do not have men to preach the Word and shepherd the flock, we do not have biblical leadership, and a church without biblical leadership is not a church. In the New Testament, men are the pastors, elders, and watchmen on the wall of Christ’s church. Praise God, we have what we need to form these kind of men: we have the Word and the gospel. We have God’s wisdom and God’s creational design—as Gavin Peacock and I have argued in this book—to offer struggling men, wisdom that drives men and women alike into God-glorifying, heart-satisfying roles in the home, church, and society.

Jordan Peterson is an intellectual worth engaging, and worth reading. In his work, and in the visceral response to his work, we see both the peril and promise of our times. He has stood up on numerous matters, and offered his own thoughts, his own ideas, his own convictions. To the church of Jesus Christ, his example beckons to ask: Will we? Will we speak up? Will we put back together through divine grace those whom sin and a darkened culture have ruined?

Peterson, in the final analysis, is not the liar the media wants him to be. He is not a lunatic. He is not a legend. He does not yet seem to know the light, the true light, Jesus Christ. But reading his book, I was reminded of the mysterious response of Christ to a particularly thoughtful scribe, the one who asks about the greatest commandment. “You are not far from the kingdom of God,” Jesus says to him (Mark 12:34).

So, it seems to me, with Peterson.