While there are real reasons to be cautious and critical of key dimensions of Peterson’s broader message, churches have much to learn from reflection upon the reasons why he resonates with so many young men.
The Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, author of the bestselling books 12 Rules for Life and Beyond Order, has exploded into mainstream evangelical consciousness in recent years. While Peterson has been quietly building up an extensive following for a few years now, many people who had not previously heard of Peterson have been surprised and often confused by the strength and the character of his appeal.
What is Drawing Young Men to Peterson?
Perhaps one of the most striking features of Peterson’s appeal is how male-weighted it is. While Peterson never set out to speak particularly to men and many women have been highly appreciative of his work, his teaching has peculiarly resonated with young men, inviting comment from both his critics and those who are more welcoming of his message. Peterson’s appeal to young evangelical men has been especially pronounced, a fact that provokes challenging questions about what it might be that evangelical men are finding in Peterson that they are not finding in their churches.
While it may be tempting to regard Peterson’s male-weighted appeal as proof that his message is somehow unbalanced, the assumption that all truth must be equally appealing to all persons is not a warranted one. There are some dimensions of the truth that will peculiarly resonate with certain persons, especially in contexts where they are not being spoken to by existing voices. Throughout the West, men are significantly outnumbered by women in churches and complaints about the supposed ‘feminization’ of the church have been exciting conversation and controversy for a few decades now. Perhaps there is something to which we should be paying attention here.
Listening closely to what both Peterson and his appreciative male followers have to say, a few things especially stand out to me. Foremost among these is the fact that Peterson displays a genuine compassion and concern for young men, and for young men as particular persons, not just as an abstract class. Peterson, as someone who is fiercely critical of ideology in general, observes and challenges much of the ideological flak to which young men are exposed by the culturally regnant orthodoxies of feminism. However, unlike many others, Peterson isn’t driven by some countervailing ideology so much as by a palpable compassion for the victims of established ideologies, young men who have been stigmatized, told that they are toxic and patriarchal, stifled, and who are increasingly marginalized or discarded by society and its institutions. I have seen countless figures on the right who want to score petty ideological points against feminists raise the issues of young men: it is Peterson’s compassion for young men as particular persons that sets him apart.
We all, conservative Christians as much, if not more, than others, are in danger of theologies and ideologies that eclipse persons, reducing them to (actual or potential) avatars of—or obstacles to the outworking of—our abstract ideological systems. People recognize this and close themselves off to us. Foregrounding persons in their concrete particularity and unfeignedly desiring and seeking their good is hugely important, not because it matters for ideological persuasion, but because people matter. Men respond to Peterson because he does this for them, but this is a posture that desperately needs to become characteristic of our relationship to every person.
Responding to Responsibility
Men are not unaccustomed to being told about their responsibility. In the society at large, they are castigated as a class for their responsibility for the oppressive structures and operations of ‘patriarchal’ society. In the church, they are often harangued to take responsibility and berated for their many failures. Responsibility is all too often handled as a legalistic rod to beat men down with or a condemnation upon them, rather than as an evangelical declaration of their God-given vocation and an accompanying gracious encouragement and building up of them so that they can live this out well.