How to cover Jordan Peterson, while avoiding truth-shaped holes in his 'secular' gospel

At least once a week, I receive an email from a reader asking me -- as a columnist -- when I am going to write about Jordan Peterson.

You see, there are lots of folks who believe Peterson is, well, the next C.S. Lewis.

Then there are others who worry that Peterson's unique worldview -- secular philosophy, with no confessed ties to a religious tradition -- are exactly the kind of thing that Lewis warned about in our modern and now postmodern world. Lewis knew a lot about the lines between deism, theism and Christian faith.

Then there are those who, after careful parsing of several thousand Peterson remarks on YouTube about the Bible and truth, are convinced that there is a faith tradition in there somewhere, one that the bestselling author ("12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos") doesn't -- for some reason -- want to state openly.

However, if you study the Peterson phenomenon you are going to run into religion and, in particular, debates about whether truth is relative and evolving or transcendent and absolute. Yes, we are James Davison Hunter territory once again. What a surprise.

Anyway, the Washington Post recently published an oh-so-predictable feature about Peterson, with this headline: "Jordan Peterson is on a crusade to toughen up young men. It’s landed him on our cultural divide."

I have some good news and some bad news, for GetReligion readers who are interested in this topic.

The good news: There's a ton of material to read in this feature linked to the religion ghosts in his worldview and the issues that have made him so controversial.

The bad news: This long feature was not produced by the religion-desk team at the Post. It shows. Religion-shaped holes are all over the place -- but zero input from religious scholars or commentators who could help connect a few of the dots. The result is -- #SHOCKING -- a chatty story that assumes this debate is actually about politics. Here is how it opens:

NEW YORK -- The world is wretched with weak men. Slouchers, slackers, chumps, low-status dudes who have amassed a crumpled pile of inferior habits and made the world a messier place.
Or so Jordan Peterson will tell you. But fear not, the doctor is here to help, preaching his thoroughly footnoted gospel of order and discipline, one rule at a time -- in a popular book, in lectures far from his ivory tower roost and, most potently, on YouTube.

It's a secular gospel, kind of. And you can tell that politics is involved in all of this, since Peterson goes out of his way to explain that he doesn't think that is the case.

Oh, and even though he slams attempts by the far right to embrace some, repeat "some," of what he says, check out the not-so-subtle phrasing in this summary paragraph:

“I don’t really regard myself as a political figure,” Peterson says, but increasingly he is, embraced by conservatives and the alt-right, and viewed suspiciously by the left. It was politics that launched him to fame last year when he spoke out against a Canadian bill mandating the use of transgender pronouns, which he views as trammeling free speech.

Wait. In terms of American reactions to Peterson, are there old-school First Amendment liberals who DON'T see that kind of bill as threatening to free speech? Just asking. But let's move on.

Like I said, the religion ghosts are frequent in this piece, often jumping out into open view. Such as:

Now there are hours and hours of his talks and interviews on YouTube, a viral Encyclopedia Jordanica with more than a million subscribers. Some of his video lectures clock in at 180 minutes with generous servings of biblical stories (but only for their moral teachings; Peterson abandoned organized religion as a teen) as well as Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn and his hero, Jung.

Now, one of the reasons that Peterson is so controversial is that he sincerely seems to think that he is telling the truth. The Post story notes that "he never appears in doubt. His thoughts are uttered as though they were the rule of law."

But what is the source of this truth, or is it "Truth"? The following is crucial and the kind of information frequently quoted by secular Peterson followers:

Peterson taught at Harvard in the 1990s, where students were known to cry when his course ended. Gregg Hurwitz, a former student from that time, went on to pen the best-selling “Orphan X” thrillers, which incorporate Peterson’s rules. “He’s telling audiences you have a responsibility to be the best version of yourself. That’s a message that’s immensely palatable to men,” says Hurwitz. “He makes a straight evolutionary, biological and psychological argument toward meaning in the world to maximize that life is worth it. Where does that message exist anywhere in the world?”

However, that's only half the equation, according to traditional religious believers who follow Peterson's work carefully and, yes, do a bit of reading between the lines. So where are those voices in this story, which clearly knows that the "truth" vs. "Truth" issue is part of the "cultural divide" issue mentioned in the story's headline.

Let's look at one final clue. You see, in addition to "truth" vs. "Truth," Peterson also seems to believe in something very close to the biblical concept of the Fall of man (Edenic or otherwise) and he really believes in good and evil.

Once again, where are these judgments coming from?

Let's look at one long passage from a Peterson appearance that captures this dynamic:

Another night, another sold-out crowd, this time on the Upper West Side. How is Peterson welcomed in this Eden of progressive politics?
“We love you, Jordan!” comes a cry from the upper balcony. A standing ovation. Several, actually. Rock star stuff.
“You New Yorkers, you’re a tough crowd,” says Peterson, flashing a rare smile.
He labels his performances “a conversation with the audience,” one where he does all the talking. He strides the Beacon Theatre stage for 2 hours and 40 minutes without so much as an index card.
“Idiotic political polarization is still a bloody catastrophe because life is a catastrophe,” Peterson tells the audience, one of his long hands balled into a fist. “You have an evil heart -- like the person next to you.” He tells them, “kids are not innately good -- and neither are you.”
Peterson doesn’t tend toward sound bites. Fifteen minutes is a throat-clearing. Tonight, he only gets through Rule 6: “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.” Which represents progress. At one talk, Tammy recalls, Peterson addressed only Rule 1. (His 158-minute video lecture on Genesis, viewed almost 2 million times, barely gets past “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”)

Read it all. And if you see critiques of this piece online -- the inevitable YouTube perhaps -- by members of the traditional religious believers who love Peterson tribe, please let me know.

This man isn't going away and neither are the religious issues built into his work.

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