Column Entry: “Crossing Jordan Peterson: What would it mean to think in a Christian way about cultural phenomena?”
By Mark Williams, Ph.D.
Professor of Rhetoric, California State University, Sacramento
Crossing Jordan Peterson: What would it mean to think in a Christian way about cultural phenomena?
The meaning of any word is dynamic. It shifts and modifies over time. Today, the word let implies “to allow”: “I let my dog sleep on the bed, even though my Beloved hates it.” But that same word once, not so very long ago, meant “to hinder” something. John Gower tells us that the vices attending sloth have, unto love, done great letting. He does not mean those vices have allowed love to flourish. Quite the opposite.
And so, when we begin to think about critiquing some cultural phenomenon like, for example, Jordan Peterson’s writings and endless YouTube presentations, and if we want to do that from a Christian perspective, we would be wise to pause first and define what, precisely we mean by Christian. Because in that word Christian we have a term that reaches from the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church to Marjorie Taylor Greene to Seventh Day Adventists, to Jim Wallis, to the Southcottians, to Kenneth Copeland to Sts. Francis of Assisi and John Henry Newman. When you have a word capturing that scope of persons and beliefs, I am not sure you have a word that is very useful for much of anything at all and especially not as a guide for critiquing culture.
One may need to narrow the scope.
Which, of course, we all do. By Christian we tend to mean, well, folks who are sane, and reasonable, and spiritually deep. Like us. Evangelical. But not those Evangelicals. Catholic. But of course, not that sort of Catholic. Pentecostal. But not those judgmental Pentecostals. In other words, we sort ourselves and make clear They are not who we mean when we offer a Christian critique of something. Does that help?
Sure. A little. It gathers us together tribally with like-minded souls, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We are all at work on our own small group assignment until the bell rings, class ends, and we die. (D+, if you are still wondering.)
To be clear, Christianity is not unique in this by any stretch of the imagination. Islam has similar, sometimes self-contradictory, definitions of Islam. So does Hinduism. And Buddhism. And, for that matter, America. And any part of America. Try defining either “The Republican Party” or “The Democratic Party” right now and see how far you get. Any group with some history and some cultural reach will naturally have a name that does not cover all its bases particularly well, and we all have to work in that messy reality.
Which brings us closer to the point. It looks like we will need to define which Christian perspective, exactly, we are going to be critiquing from. But it also suggests that the target of our critique is, itself, going to be more complex than we might guess. After all, we would not bother critiquing it unless it had some history and some cultural reach. So that target—the Jordan Peterson phenomenon, in this case—may well be more complex and nuanced than we might, if we were being honest, want it to be.
So, first, what will a Christian perspective on the Jordan Peterson phenomenon look like? There is some popularity, when starting such critiques, to fall back on C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity as a sort of vague pragmatic creed. But Lewis wrote that work as an apologetic piece, mostly. And even the later installments, where he tries to summarize generic Christian beliefs and aspirations, are, in the end, pretty summary and generic. Most statements that we find in the book might be embraced by most of those diverse Christians listed above. So, we may need more narrowing than Lewis offers and, of course, I am only saying what Lewis himself said in the preface. He has sketched a structure. But a blueprint is not a building, and eventually one has to make a decision about the specific Christian church one will enter in order to be made holy. So, the basis of Mere Christianity may not offer us what we need for a robust, deeply specific Christian critique of events in our own culture.
I will go another direction. I intend to take, as my basis of critique, the Nicene Creed. That statement of Christian belief is precise and long-standing. I will, further, lean on a traditional, Trinitarian, and historic (that means, regarding the Nicene Creed, a largely Roman Catholic) sense of the definitions of the terms here. Protestants who are part of the traditional, historic understanding of Christian life will likely find little or nothing to disagree with in these “Catholic” Christian readings of the Creed. Most disagreements that resulted in the formation of the early Protestant churches came well after these credal definitions were cemented as central to the faith.
But that brings us to Jordan Peterson himself. He is, like Christianity, less easy to pin down than we might at first think. But that reflection will be our next step forward.
 John Gower, Lover’s Confession, II.92. “Ther ben other vices slowe, Whiche unto love don gret lette, if thou thin herte upon hem sette.”