What is the apparent fascination with Jordan Peterson, author of the recently-released 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos? The McGill-educated clinical psychologist is clearly an intelligent and erudite individual. An endorsement on the front cover of the book refers to him as, “One of the most important thinkers to emerge on the world stage for many years.” His videos clips on YouTube have been collectively viewed over 100 million times. He has been serenaded on the US talk show circuit. Clearly, people are interested in what he thinks.
In this series of blog posts, I’ll review his “12 Rules” and provide a Christian perspective on his writing. In short, I recommend that every Christian leader reads this book. Why? Peterson is unique as a mainstream writer who integrates biblical concepts—dare we say “theology”—into the fabric of his analysis throughout the book.
He has written only two books. Apart from the 12 Rules for Life he also wrote Maps of Meaning, an academic tome published in 1999. Despite the title of his recent book, it’s not a “self-help book” and makes no pretense to be one. This is not Norman Vincent Peale 2.0! More like the opposite. Life is not easy (312), we are reminded of multiple times. He trots out Hobbes’ famous quote that “life is nasty, brutish and short!” Religion doesn’t help either. His perspective is that Christianity, too, reminds us that life is about suffering (338).
Part of Peterson’s oversized profile for an academic, indeed notoriety, is his contrarian stances. He gets embroiled in issues of “political correctness” in his academic environment [p 302]. He tackles issues head on that others seemingly don’t want to address. He rants about “social constructionist theory” and “socialization of boys” [p. 317] and embarks on tangents on the nature of education and the differences between teaching girls and boys)[p. 298-9].
He clearly has the courage of his convictions, not afraid to say his piece, come hell or high water, and pleased to take on the hypocrisy of political correctness. He punctures the self-righteousness in their Ivory Towers. Many are critical of him, online and in person when he’s on the road. He inspires vitriol, yet responds with poise and thoughtfulness.
What about the style and flow of the book? He makes a lot of good points and observations—they are just not necessarily related to his 12 Rules. There are lots of rabbit trails and venting of pet peeves. He deploys very flowery language [p. 201], the kinds of verbosity that gets deleted from first-year papers. The language is lofty and general, bordering on poetic and romantic, restating things that don’t require it, violating his own rule about precision. Because of the disjointed nature of the book—and it is long—there is not always sufficient impact behind his 12 Rules.
Yet, Peterson is very interesting. His research band is broad, encompassing lobsters, John Milton, Nietzche, Carl Jung, Goethe, Freud, Auschwitz and the Nuremberg Trials. He also frequently references the evolutionary process and how some of our actions have been allegedly hardwired into us over millions of years. But with his broad scope comes sweeping generalizations and loss of precise impact. In addition, he accepts second-hand superficialities in order to fit a narrative. For example, he refers to the so-call Dark Ages (which, in fact, wasn’t, see Rodney Stark) and the pitting of science versus religion (they worked more in harmony than not, see Allan Chapman).
Why should Christian leaders read this book? From a Christian standpoint, the book is intriguing. Peterson asserts that, “The Bible is, for better or worse, the foundational document of Western civilization, of Western values, Western morality, and Western conceptions of good and evil.”  This is clearly not something that a mainstream, secular audience wants to hear. Christianity should be relegated to the dustbin of the past, not a foundational framework for the present.
Peterson’s approach integrates biblical insights: “Its [the Bible] careful, respectful study can reveal things to us about what we believe and we do and should act that can be discovered in almost no other manner.”  “Respectful study?” Again, this is anathema to so-called intellectual elite or popular media.
From a Christian standpoint, his writing is quite interesting as he makes extensive biblical references and discusses biblical stories and insights in great detail: the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, Jacob and Isaac, Jesus’ crucifixion and temptation and the nature of Hell.
Peterson quotes the Bible throughout: Matthew 6:34 [p. 351]; Matthew 7:7-8 [p. 356]; Matthew 6:28 [p. 359]; Matthew 7:16-20 [p. 362]; Matthew 5:43 [p. 364] and Luke 12:22-34 [p. 110]; he refers to the Sermon on the Mount [p. 109], and Paradise [p. 163]. Indeed, Peterson even quotes non-canonical books such as the Gospel of Thomas [p. 103].
Peterson offers a unique perspective on many biblical concepts (i.e. Original Sin, the nature of Work) and figures (Cain and Abel, the temptation of Jesus, etc.). Again, few secular thinkers would take on these topics—other than to simply disparage them.
It is odd, even for Christian readers, that Peterson keeps citing biblical sources, but one gets accustomed to it after a while. Those biblical references wouldn’t typically inhabit a book of this nature. At the same time, he does not claim to be a Christian—indeed, he states that he has outgrown the superficial Christianity of his youth in the northern tundra town of Fairview, Alberta.
Peterson does not always reference Christian concepts with approval or in defense. So, he is no apologist for the Christian faith. For example, he talks of a “devastating critique” of Christianity by people such as Nietzsche. That’s clearly a personal opinion. Since the time of Nietzsche’s critique, Christiendom has grown to over two billion followers, topping the German philosopher by a rather wide margin.
In addition, Peterson will make snide references to parts of the Bible with the line, “so the story goes.” This seems to be a coy note that, while we cannot take the biblical tales as literally true, they have value as ancient wisdom literature.
In short, the 12 Rules for Life is intriguing rather than excellent, disjointed rather than fluid, page-stopper rather than a page-turner, and so meandering it’s hard to remember the point behind most chapters.
Yet, he is a unique and original thinker, of which there are not many. That makes him worthy of the effort to read—you likely won’t get this take on things anywhere else. Further, from a Chrstian viewpoint, there are few if any mainstream thinkers who integrate biblical concepts so thoroughly into their analysis. This is a book that every Christian leader should read—not because Peteerson will affirm your beliefs, but he will challenge and deepen them.