April 5, 2018

Jordan Peterson and the Courage of the Counter-intuitive

The courage to be counter-intuitive is rare, but necessary.  And increasingly rare, and therefore increasingly necessary in this brittle, brutal media-saturated world.

This struck me listening to Jordan Peterson (him again!) on Richard Fidler’s excellent ABC Conversations program, a podcast that has three million subscribers.

Three million subscribers.  Think about that.

Three million subscribers listening to what is basically an extended dialogue based around intellectual topics.  No music, no prank calls.

That’s counter-intuitive courage right there.

After all those years being told at conferences, and reading in books that people won’t listen to extended monologue, especially in sermons, the success of the TED talk and the long podcast has proven otherwise.

Preaching itself is counter-intuitive.  Granted, bad preaching is counter-productive, but the average pastor could pillage a few things from the Egyptians by listening to good monologues and working hard on moving beyond either trite homilies that is all sugar or extended exegesis that is all gristle.  People will listen to monologue after all!  Who would have thought.

But that wasn’t what I discovered to be so counter-intuitive about Peterson’s interview with Fidler, good though that discovery was.

It was when Peterson explained that if he’d gone to his bank manager to fund his speaking tour and told the bank that he was going to rent a theatre, invite people who had problems in their lives to come and hear him explain from the Old Testament to where they had gone wrong and what they might do about it, his bank would wave him away.  There’s no money to be made in that.

But the result?  A sell-out tour.  And everyone saying what a masterly cultural exegete he was. But that’s not what they said before.  That was viewed as career suicide, or financial suicide at least.

As Peterson said to Fidler, you just need to not blink and to have the courage of your convictions as you set out to do it.

On this side of the tour, with one million Youtube subscribers it looks like the most eminently sensible thing for Peterson to have done.  But on the other side?  Before he took a deep breath and put his cheque book on the line?  Looked foolish.  Looked like a fail.

None of this is to say that that the church is merely about speaking tours.  But it is to say this:  As a long term clinician, Peterson picked the problem in people, the problem that was deeper than the presenting problem of boredom or dissatisfaction with their spouse or whatever, and then he pitched at that.

He’s done enough work with the sub-conscious to know the drivers in people and how to address them.  And he had the courage to not dress up the problem in an attractional speaking tour.  He realised that most Westerners are deeply suspicious of “the sell”, so he cut straight to the chase.  He recognised people don’t have time for the dilly-dally.  He got to the point.

Peterson looked beyond felt needs to deeper needs, and rather than provide a bait and switch to get people to pay up and attend, he went straight for the spiritual and emotional jugular.

He tapped straight away into what Thomas Chalmers talked about: The expulsive power of a new affection.  He tapped into what David Foster Wallace talked about: the fact that anything non-transcendent that you worship will eat you alive.

Peterson scratched the subterranean itch in people who were tired of their mindless, shifting affections; who were bored with the material things they were worshipping.  And who, by and large, have often given up on a church that tries to lure them with the very things they are tired of.  Proving again that so often the church is a day late and a dollar short.

Peterson was courageous enough to know that the answer he was going to provide once they got there needed to shape the question he was going to ask them in order to get them there in the first place.

In other words. what he drew them with, he drew them to.  There was no bait and switch.  He had the courage of his convictions to point out the obvious problem up front and then offer a solution.  And he did it in the face of a cultural hostility and pushback that the average pastor can only have nightmares about.

That is a salutary lesson for a church culture which often pitches at felt need in order to get to deeper need.  But here’s the problem.  Often it doesn’t get there.  Because, as I just stated, what we draw people with we draw them to.  We see the crowd come because of the bait, and we become too nervous to make the switch, or we find that the switch is just another version of the bait.

By every measure we should have Peterson’s measure!  By the power of the Holy Spirit, we have available to us the same courage and more! In the risen Christ we have the strength not to blink in the face of a derisory, hostile culture. We have the chance to be bravely counter-intuitive in what we offer people.

Peterson made this sobering observation towards the end of the interview:

History is not about other people.  History is about you… You might try to worm out of that by saying the history that is about me is the history of the victim.  But it’s also the history of the perpetrator.  And if you don’t read history as the perpetrator then you haven’t figured out how the world works.

And he goes on with this stunning observation:

History is a biography.  It’s about you.  You’re the Auschwitz camp guard.  You might think you’re the person who would have opened her house up to Anne Frank and her family.  But probably you’re not, because that’s statistically very, very unlikely and it requires a level of courage and a level of willingness to accept risk even on behalf of your family that virtually no one has and that almost no one should lay careless claim to…..There are people you meet with backbones of steel, but they’re not very common. I’d say it’s one in a thousand.

With that statement Peterson slays in the aisle the casual virtue signaller so beloved of the meme and Facebook post.

Kind of reminds me of Jesus in Matthew 23 when he pronounces woe on the virtue signallers par excellence, the religious leaders of his day:

You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’  

Before they go about proving they would by killing the prophet par excellence standing before them saying that.  We’ve just commemorated Easter precisely because history shows that although we are victims of sin – kept enslaved by it – we are also perpetrators of sin – we enslave others and ourselves by it.

My gut is that too many Christians are grumpy and picky about Peterson because he’s showing us up in one crucial area: the courage to both maintain a firm but polite public demeanour, and to say things that result in equally public scorn, slander and deliberate misrepresentation.

So Christian writers and thinkers poo-poo him for not fully teaching the Bible as if he were a full time Christian leader.   I think there’s a bit of jealousy going on.

And perhaps we poo-poo him because, with the level of courage he’s had to show under a barrage of criticism that most of us run away from, he might just be the one in a thousand who would open the door to Anne Frank, while we would not.  And we don’t like to think of ourselves as those who would simply ignore the victim out of fear, never mind being a perpetrator.

I pray one day Peterson discovers Jesus – the truly courage man –  as King and Saviour, not just as good moral guide.  That will truly put petrol in the tank of his message.

You can listen to the excellent Richard Fidler Conversations interview with Peterson here.






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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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