Four Things Preachers Can Learn from Jordan Peterson (and One Thing We Can Teach Him)

Jordan Peterson is like the planking craze of 2011; just two months ago no one had heard of him, now he’s an international meme.

Planking (remember that?), was the crazy act of lying down in an equally crazy place (some people just call that “sleeping it off”).  It looked a little something like this:

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It lasted a few months, then died out, as opposed to doing planks for core strength which is still going strong (stronger even if you keep them up) and looks more like this:

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But the Canadian academic/psychologist has made a name for himself that will, I suspect, last longer than the planking craze, and will be a tad more beneficial than planks. And Peterson looks exactly  like this:

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And the reason for his longevity past the craze phase seems clear: He claims to be speaking into a yawning chasm in our culture; the chasm where meaning and purpose and identity used to reside before the deconstructionists deconstructed everything beyond any ability to recognise the construction that was there in the first place.   And the stats reflect his growing reach and influence.

Peterson has stood up against the suffocating language police who are enervating the university campuses; through his practice he has supported women looking to move up the corporate ladder in a “man’s world”; and he has stood tall for the generation of lost men who are bereft of focus, unsure of their place in the new times, and looking for meaning with a capital “M”.

If you haven’t checked out his podcast you should, and it’s gone fairly viral since that interview on the BBC with Cathy Newman in which she used every non sequitur under the sun , giving rise to all sorts of memes:

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And he’s doing all of this with verve, wit, vigour and bravery, in the face of some serious opposition from those who despise everything he stands for (or refuse to take what he stands for seriously and take the lazy option of despising what they do not understand.).

And what does that have to do with preaching?  And what can preachers learn from Peterson?  And what can we teach him about preaching?  I ask that question after listening to a couple – and just a couple – of his Old Testament series podcasts in which he systematically teaches/lectures through Genesis, on his way to the promised land of Exodus.

Now as a psychologist Peterson is unashamedly looking at the text from a psychological angle, but from what I’ve heard he uses that angle as a foil to speak to wider issues.  Unlike, for example, a lot of poorer preachers who use the Bible as a foil to speak poorly about psychology.

Now, as I say, I haven’t listened to many of them, but as a preacher of some years standing I was immediately struck by four things that he does well that many preachers don’t do well (especially with the Old Testament narratives), and from which we can learn.

Here’s what I have liked so far:

1. Petersen Takes The Text Seriously

By this I mean that he grapples with what the text is about, rather than coming to it with a pretext and then squeezing the text into his predetermined ideas.  So, for example, in the story of Joseph, right at the outset, he questions why we are told that Jacob loved Joseph more than all of the other siblings (Genesis 37).

He wants to know where this unfortunate, and obvious favouritism  leads, why a father would do that, why a sibling is singled out in these stories.  He then points out, in the very next verse, the presence of the “coat of many colours”, and how clothes are used in Scripture (and in dreams) to hide people’s true intent.

Now contrast this approach with the BibleHub, no less, a website that provides Bible translations.  Here’s how BibleHub’s children’s version “The Wonder Book of Bible Stories” narrates this passage (and note the words I put in bold):

Of all his children, Jacob loved Joseph the best, because he was Rachel’s child; because he was so much younger than most of his brothers; and because he was good, and faithful, and thoughtful. Jacob gave to Joseph a robe or coat of bright colors, made somewhat like a long cloak with wide sleeves. This was a special mark of Jacob’s favor to Joseph, and it made his older brothers envious of him.

Because he was good, and faithful and thoughtful?  Gimme a break!  Joseph was a snitch, and not a little arrogant!  This sanitised version of the text destroys the tension of the story and does exactly what the problem is with much Old Testament preaching: it gives to the Old Testament characters a morality that many simply did not possess.  It deletes the need of grace! Which brings us to what else Peterson does well:

2. Peterson Takes Badness Seriously

At every point in the Genesis narrative Peterson is at great pains to point out that the patriarchs were a ropey bunch who, by modern pietistic standards, did not match up to what a Christian is supposedly like.

Peterson takes badness seriously.  He speaks about badness – sin – a lot.  He highlights how destructive the human condition can be, and he knows how bad it can be because he’s seen a lot of it in his practice.  Peterson does not gild the lily when it comes to the likes of Abraham and his habit of passing off his wife as his sister to save his own skin.

And he goes on to showcase the badness around the world that stems from this fractured human nature, in which so much energy goes into doing the bad, that the energy left to do good never gets enough good done.  He asks serious questions about where the human project is headed if this is not resolved.

Yet I was brought up on a diet of “be like Abraham”, “Be like David”, with all of their sins airbrushed from the stories.  So much so that it seemed barely believable that they needed the cross of Jesus as the solution to their sin.

3. Peterson Takes Suffering Seriously

In a Christian bookshop world of “Your Best Life Now”, and myriad similar titles in which you are cajoled into thinking that the Christian life is supposed to be name it and claim it, Peterson wipes that away with an existential and psychological sideswipe.

And here is where he comes into his own, as he looks out across the littered landscape of the modern day psychological mind.  Peterson notes that the call to the religious life in the Old Testament, but also in the life of Christ, is a call to suffering.

He contrast this, favourably, with Freud, who saw religion as humanity’s paleo-nanny which historically reined in our more violent impulses, before the maturity and release of the age of reason.  And he contrasts this, favourably, with Marx who saw a primarily sedative effective in religion that allowed us to be controlled.

Peterson realises that a biblical encounter with God arcs everything up, putting our lives into stark relief against the backdrop of divine purpose.  Everything is on the table.  The narrative is marked by suffering.  People are called into deserts, to leave families behind, to stand against family members, and most of all, to wrestle with God.

And I contrast Peterson favourably with a million sermons on the likes of the Prayer of Jabez, its mantra-like magical qualities, and the veritable cottage industry of books, tea-towels and key-rings, that promise you blessing now if all you do is pray that prayer.

How did we get to this?  How did we get to the stage that a convulsing culture in need of direction is looking to the likes of  Peterson, and his grasp on how the Bible picks up the theme of suffering as normative in the godly life?

4. Peterson Takes the Big Picture Seriously

Above all else Peterson is concerned at the loss of a big story in the Western tradition, and he lambasts the fractured, anti-intellectual movements across the universities in the West that have taken such delight in deconstructing the Western narrative, and refusing it a place of honour in their halls.  He sees the Old Testament in particular as the backdrop to meaning in the Western world.  And he sees its loss as the loss of deep meaning, with all the attendant problems that brings.

In a fascinating interview with arch-lefty/gay/pro-porn/pro-transgender feminist Camille la Paglia, he unpacks the reason behind the hopeless despair across the West at a time when we’ve never had it so good, namely the loss of any meaning bigger than ourselves.  Peterson is fascinated by the Old Testament because its the defining foundational narrative that describes who humans are, where they originate, and what is wrong with them.

And all of this at a time when many within the Christian church are jettisoning the theological, sociological and ethical frameworks that the early chapters of Genesis give us. Preachers need to use the Old Testament as a backdrop for everything they say about humanity, and in how they understand the New Testament for, ironically, if they don’t, they will simply psychologise the New Testament message of the gospel of grace.

Peterson recognises that this big story needs to be told if drifting, aimless humanity in the West is to rediscover its foundations and prepare itself for a world in which other cultures, who do not self-loath to the extent that we do, start to take ascendancy.

So that’s four things we can learn from him.  What one thing can we teach him?

The Scriptures Are Fulfilled In Jesus

The missing link in Peterson’s preaching on the Old Testament of course, is that the Scriptures find their fulfilment in the Lord Jesus, and that to miss this is a sign that we are foolish and slow of heart (Luke 24:13-27).

In other words, Peterson has not grasped the significance of Biblical Theology. Jesus is the key that unlocks the mystery of the Old Testament and reveals the God that Peterson believes the West needs to recover.

Biblical Theology is central to the way in which we are to teach the Old Testament.  Not that we simply jump to the “Jesus answer” like Sunday School children, but that we see the promises of God being “Yes and Yes” in him (2Cor 1:20).

And I wish I could say that Peterson was alone in this.  But he is not.  Many a church preacher fails to read Jesus back into the Old Testament and subsequently not simply preaches the same as Peterson, but worse.  For Peterson has a depth of wisdom and intellect about him that is alien to many preachers.  He thinks big picture, he sees grand narratives, he is widely read, he understands the human mind, and he has a vivid style of teaching.

But without Jesus as the key, all Peterson is left with is a moralistic reading of the Old Testament at best, and an allegorical reading at worst (or perhaps that’s the other way around).

What Peterson needs is a Jesus key to unlock the Old Testament that will leave his listeners not simply more determined to turn this leaking ship around, but who will have hearts that have been joyfully warmed within them as they encounter the risen Christ through the Scriptures.  Who find their hope not simply in the Western tradition being recovered, but in the One who gave us its many benefits in this age, as well as hope for the age to come.