Earlier this year, Billy Graham, “America’s Pastor,” died at the ripe old age of 99. During his long lifetime he preached to more people in live audiences than anyone before him in recorded history, reputedly about 215 million people in 185 countries. No doubt many more saw and heard him via his broadcasts and recordings, but it was on the floor at his performances where lives were actually changed.
The reverse might be said of Jordan Peterson. Although about half a million people have seen the 55-year-old University of Toronto psychologist-turned-cultural counterrevolutionary in a live appearance, most of his followers find him online. If you add up the people that Peterson has reached so far on YouTube, his own channel (800,000-plus subscribers), downloads for his podcast, views on Bite-Sized Philosophy, appearances on the Joe Rogan show, multiple appearances on The Rubin Report (635,000 subscribers), and more – the numbers increase exponentially by the day, so let us say as of March 31, 2018 – it rounds out conservatively at about 170 million views. Unlike the case of Billy Graham, most people who say their lives have been changed by Peterson have never met him, and probably never will.
The New York Times’ David Brooks, a columnist widely respected on both the political right and left, acknowledges Peterson as “the most influential public intellectual in the western world right now.” Brooks is not given to hyperbole. On YouTube, Peterson’s “Biblical Series 1: Introduction to the Idea of God” and “Identity Politics and the Marxist Lie of White Privilege” have accumulated more than fifty million views (as of some months ago, doubtless far more by now).
This is no mere product of idle web surfing. It is purposeful viewing. Yet aren’t God and the Bible supposed to be over? All the postmodern intellectuals say so. Then what’s behind the surging demand for Peterson’s content? Is it conceivable that something – some spiritual element, let us say – is missing from the educational and cultural marinade his followers have been steeped in all their lives?
That’s what columnist David French concluded in National Review,
“In fact, there’s so much Bible in Peterson’s phenomenally successful book [Twelve Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos], that I never, ever want to hear another hipster Christian declare that “Scripture can’t reach kids these days.” Oh, really? It turns out that when a writer artfully connects Biblical passages to historic moral and philosophical developments, interprets them in light of his own knowledge of psychology, and presents the passages not as a pastor but as a professor, then secular readers will mainline it like heroin.”
While his detractors attempt to portray him as a kind of darkly ensorcelling Pied Piper for alt-right deplorables, a false messiah who will usher in a neo-patriarchy, undoing the good work of progressives who have so assiduously scrubbed clean the “toxic masculinity” that begrimed our society, I see an entirely different man. I see Alberta-raised Peterson as a prairie prophet, standing athwart a declining civilization and yelling STOP!
What do we mean when we call someone a prophet for the modern age? Don’t expect a precise definition, because I can’t give you that. I’m like the gallery-goer who couldn’t define beauty in art, but knew it when she saw it. At one point, watching one of Peterson’s videos, I found myself thinking, “This man is a prophet.” Then I had to ask myself what I meant by that. So what follows doesn’t pretend to be a definition that would stand up in court; it’s personal, impressionistic and intuitive.
As in ancient times, whether predicting dire events, castigating people for immoral behaviour, or dragging them reluctantly to their task of nation-building, a prophet’s lot can be isolating, thankless or even scary. But they feel duty-bound to carry on. Offsetting the downsides is their trust in the righteousness of their task. As God allegedly said to Jeremiah, “Attack you they will, overcome you they can’t.”
The difference between preachers like Graham and prophets like Peterson, it seems to me, is that preachers are mostly calling people to faith and salvation, while prophets summon them to action. As it says in the Torah, “nas’aseh v’nishma,” (Exodus 24:7), literally “we will do” and then “we will hear”. This is interpreted to mean we will obey God’s commandments and understand why later, and sometimes further interpreted to mean, proper action is more important than belief.
Prophets – at least the biblical prophets I was exposed to throughout my youth in synagogue and later in Jewish Studies at McGill University – are therefore less concerned about what people believe, and more concerned about what they do. Peterson, too. As he says in his book, “religion is about ‘proper behaviour’.”
The ancient prophets didn’t seek political power for themselves, but had no hesitation in calling kings to moral account as their peers. If for kings you substitute postmodern intellectuals, Peterson fits right in with the ancient ones.
Another thing about the old prophets: they were heavy on categorization. Ambiguity is always suspect. They are after all drawing from a text – the Torah – in which one finds sharp distinctions made between good and evil, male and female, that which is permitted to be eaten and that which is not, the ordinary days and the sacred days. Human nature was for them biologically hardwired and immutable. How they would have laughed at the idea that gender is socially constructed or, God forbid, “fluid.”
Group survival – whether it’s a people or a nation or a culture, what’s at stake today – requires realism, risk-taking and standardization of social outlook. The prophets were not soft or nurturing men and women. They understood that sacrifice in the present was necessary for reward in the future.
Prophets don’t care if their judgments offend, when they are spelling out truths people need to hear. Their thoughts are not with human situations that are contingent to norms, but with those that are normative and fixed – those, like the family, that bear the burden of humanity’s future.
When I listen to or read Jordan Peterson, I say to myself, this man is a prophet in my traditional understanding of the word. He isn’t calling anyone to a specific faith, ideology or political platform. In fact, he’s chary of belief systems in general, as those devised by human beings generally bring mass destruction in their wake, notably Marxism, whose twentieth century trajectory haunts him with particular anguish.
Peterson won’t say if he believes in God, but says he believes in acting “as if God exists” if one wants to do good in the world. Transcendance of the egocentric self and humility before a higher power, he teaches, is all that prevents man from the corruption that attends human power, when human beings no longer see themselves as part of a chain of being, which stretches far beyond them.
One thing prophets of any age are not is saints. They are fearless, which often goes hand in hand with irascibility and impatience. (Jesus was pretty cranky when he chased the money-lenders out of the temple.) The truths they espouse are so self-evident to them, they can’t understand why, once enunciated, they aren’t to everyone else.
And here’s another commonality, perhaps the most important one, and a dominant characteristic of Peterson’s general thrust. Prophets can’t bear idolatry. It drives them crazy. What was Abraham’s first recorded act? He smashed his father Terah’s stone idols. What did Moses do when he came down from Mount Sinai after 30 days of communion with God, only to find his flock engaged in erotic dancing around a golden calf they had fashioned from their jewellery? He smashed the precious tablets with the Ten Commandments on them.
Why couldn’t the people of Israel have waited a lousy 30 days before creating idols, before descending into indecency? Because they’re human beings, and human beings are weak. If you don’t give them God and rules to follow, or abandon them to their own devices without moral leadership – faster than you can say the church of the flying spaghetti monster they’ll create gods that “permit” paganism.
In his 2010 book, The Prophets: Who they were, what they are, former editor of Commentary Magazine Norman Podhoretz traces the idolatry theme from ancient times to the present. In the past, men made idols of stone and metal. In the present, they make idols of utopian theories about society. It can be dangerous to smash idols, because those who believe in them often believe with ferocity, but prophets do it anyway.
Podhoretz writes: “My thesis, in short, is that to the classical prophets idolatry amounted to self-deification, the delusion that we humans could become…as gods…and if I am right about the classical prophets, they are telling us that idolatry is the cult of self.” He goes on: “Now, as then, the battle will have to be fought first and foremost within ourselves and then in the world of ideas around us. And now as then, it will have to be conducted in the spirit in which the classical prophets conducted it.”
That “spirit” is what I see in Jordan Peterson. In his battle against the idolatrous theories of our age – moral relativism, social constructionism, identity politics, subsumed under the general heading of cultural Marxism – he validates Podhoretz’s paradigm.
Twelve Rules for Life is what it sounds like: a self-help book, which, even as I write the words, exudes a strong lowbrow aroma. In truth, it is “all-brow”: it can be read at many different levels. Peterson is reaching out to the world, and will grasp any hand that reaches back. Like all self-help books, it is designed to bolster a faltering sense of purpose – or in many cases supply the very idea of the purpose-driven life.
For “purpose” is not what the majority of young people in the West are being offered. Routes to pleasure they are offered in abundance. Righteous indignation over the iniquities of society and loathing for their own civilization, lots. But the “reach” for something that “exceeds their grasp,” as the poet put it – they are not given that at all.
And because so many of them feel lost, especially young men, who feel unvalued and uncertain of their role in a highly feminized society, Peterson’s Rules are balm to a soul they often weren’t even aware they had, because none of their educators ever mentioned it.
A morose realism runs through it all: “Life is suffering. That’s clear. There is no more basic, irrefutable truth”; “Things fall apart.” There’s no doubt that this book was written from a profoundly personal place. You can tell when Peterson’s thoughts stem from his most painful personal experiences, because the cadence of the prose becomes, well, biblical:
“What can I not doubt? The reality of suffering. It brooks no arguments. Nihilists cannot undermine it with scepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape from its reality. Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief.”
What is the good? “The good is whatever stops such things from happening.”
This kind of language is easy to mock. And Peterson does get mocked, by detractors lightweight and heavy. But like millions of other “terrified traditionalists” (his self-description), I see something they don’t. What his detractors willfully ignore is that Peterson is offering young people concepts and themes that they had assumed were safely stowed in the dustbin of history. Twelve Rules for Life (which crossed the million in sales mark in mid-April) pays respectful attention to the existence of the soul, of sacrifice as a good thing, and even to God, of all damned things, and to the shock and horror of Peterson’s critics, there’s a huge market for it.
In an interview with CBC’s Wendy Mesley, when asked what he thought was ahead for him, Peterson answered with a characteristically gloomy/realistic touch: “I don’t know what’s next really…The overwhelming likelihood, as far as I’m concerned, and it’s been this way since September of 2016, is that this will go terribly wrong…It’s too much, eh? It’s been too much for a long time. But so far so good and I’ll ride it out as long as I can. I’m surfing a hundred-foot wave and generally what happens if you do that is, you drown.” Mesley was disconcerted. “That’s interesting,” she replied.
It sure as hell is interesting, bucko, as Peterson might say. It wasn’t the kind of thing you’d expect to hear from someone who’s drinking his own Kool-Aid or who considers himself the Second Coming of Christ, as his detractors would like you to think.
Peterson is a man like any other. Except for being a lot smarter and learned than most, and except for being a modern prophet. And in that role he is a conduit for a message the ideologues in our listing culture need to hear before they attract so many people to their side that the boat keels over. The boat, by the way, really is in danger of keeling over. If ever a prophet was needed to drag people back from the cultural brink, it is now.