Peterson redeemed

How a pastor from California is using Jordan Peterson to plant gospel seeds.

Jordan Peterson just spoke in Ljubjana, Slovenia, to an audience of 2,000. He’ll be in Honolulu next. Over 1.6 million people subscribe to Peterson’s YouTube channel, making the U of T professor one of the most influential Canadians alive. Many fans focus on his political stance; others call his self-help advice “life-changing.” But he also has a lot to say about the Bible, which one Christian Reformed pastor from California sees as a missional opportunity. Paul VanderKlay makes YouTube videos about Peterson that 10,000 people regularly watch. And he’s also meeting with young Peterson fans, called “buckos,” in real life – men who walk into his church with questions about the Bible.

Christian Courier Editor Angela Reitsma Bick spoke with VanderKlay to find out more.   

VanderKlay with one of his meet up groups, which vary in size from 12-30 each time.

CC: Is Jordan Peterson the anti-Christ or the Messiah? How would you describe him? 

VanderKlay: I think of him like the unauthorized exorcist in Mark 9. Jesus is with his disciples, and John comes to Jesus and says, “Hey, there’s a guy out there casting out demons in your name! Should we go stop him?” and Jesus says, “Leave him alone.”

People get out of Peterson what they bring to him, like a Rorschach test. One person described him like that uncle that a lot of men need, giving you wisdom your father couldn’t tell you: “Don’t drink so much. Marry that girl. Get out of your mom’s basement and get a job.” 

Part of what drew some people’s attention to Peterson was Bill C-16; they saw a guy stand up to the [political correctness] machine. A lot of people on the Right saw that and were energized by him. Then the Left said “he’s the dragon we need to slay;” but to the people on the Right, he is the dragon-slayer. 

When I saw him, I was interested in how his biblical series was trying to rejoin the split world that we’ve had in the West since the collapse of Luther’s dream and the Reformation. Luther’s dream was that, now that we have this Bible, we can reform the church according to what it’s always meant to be. But very quickly lots of people are reading things out of the Bible too, and the Reformation fractures out into many branches and many, many sub branches. 

After that point, the West started looking for another basis of commonality. Philosophically the two bases are empiricism from below and rationalism from above, which goes back to Plato. After Newton, we get our science from the book of nature (Belgic Confession), but we’ll get our morality from the Bible (special revelation). That synthesis worked for a while, but it broke down in the early 20th century in Europe, especially after the Cold War. 

Peterson comes along and makes an argument not against Darwin but with Darwin. And he says the Bible should teach us morality, and we can’t understand Darwin without some of the things we learn from the Bible and from science. So he’s trying to knit the world back together again. That’s a powerful thing. 

CC: We’re talking on Oct. 31, Reformation Day. Are you saying that Jordan Peterson is healing some wounds from that era? 

VanderKlay: Yes, from the post-Reformation, from the failure of the Reformation. 

CC: But unlike Luther, he has a very big door – through YouTube – to “post his thesis,” is that right?

VanderKlay: Yes, he’s got a very big door! 

CC: You made your first YouTube video about Peterson in November 2017. What’s happened since then? 

VanderKlay: I first ran across Peterson during the C-16 thing. I saw videos of him, and people were really angry, and he seemed calm. I thought that was interesting. He was giving lectures on the Bible and they were selling out! I listened to all of his Biblical series, his maps of meaning, and decided to make a video about it. My second video takes off. And a guy comes into [my] church with a Peterson poster – he’d never been to church before. Then I start getting emails from people, telling me their stories, asking for help. I’m a pastor! I keep doing what pastors do! And the crowd kept growing. 

John van Donk, a former pastor, says, “You need to start a meetup.” So I did, and 12 people came to the first one. You know how hard it is to get men to come to a Bible Study? We have women’s Coffee Break; those groups are indestructible. Men? Zippo. Eleven of these people are men, most of them are atheists, and they want to talk about God! I’m a pastor who would give his eye-teeth to talk to seekers about God, and now I have more people to talk to than I have time for! Now I’ve got this video following, and people bring me their Peterson books to sign, and want their pictures with me! 

Then we’ve got this tree at church that needs to be cut down. Most of our congregation is aging. The young buckos I’m meeting are mostly single. Four of them come by on a Saturday morning to help cut down this tree, and now we have relationships starting to be formed. And I think, this is a lot better than VBS or community fun fairs in terms of outreach! [It’s] the best missional opportunity of this decade.

CC: How many hours a week do you spend on Peterson?

VanderKlay: Probably 10-15. I’ve got a small, declining church and to me this is the most profitable missional thing we’ve ever done. People send money to the church to support this. And I send people to other places in the country, to other churches. 
We are no longer trying to reach nominal, lapsed Christians that just need to be energized – those are gone. We’re doing discipleship from the ground up. 

What happens when my meet-up group gets bigger than my church? I don’t know yet. What kind of church does this population need, and what will that look like? I don’t have those answers.

CC: Can you summarize his 12 Rules for someone who hasn’t read it?

VanderKlay: “Do what is meaningful and not what is expedient.” Affluence means you have choices, and our natural inclination will be to do the expedient. He uses meaning as a hash for truth and purpose; this meaning-orientation we have is the best orientation device we have for truth. 

“Get your act together, sort yourself out, stop being a coward, face the difficulties of life.” It’s in some way a manual for stoics. It is works-righteousness, a gospel of save-yourself. It’s connected to the book of Proverbs, wisdom literature. It’s a good book, but Peterson’s best medium is not writing; it’s YouTube.

CC: A lot of Peterson’s “rules” line up with biblical values. Has the church stopped preaching these, or has culture tuned us out? Why has Peterson’s pulpit in contrast grown so large? 

VanderKlay: The church is insecure, terrified of ticking off religious consumers. And so they become quivering masses of availability. And people don’t respect that. Churches that grow are counter-cultural churches, because if you’re in alignment with the culture, you don’t need a church. Pastors are terrified of telling people what they think is true. Peterson says, “this is true; hate me, love me, I don’t care.” And there’s power in that. People respect that, especially men. 

CC: Why does Peterson resonate with men in particular?  

VanderKlay: We’ve spent the last hundred years as a society wrestling with what it means to be women. We haven’t done the same with men. A big part of this Peterson movement is men trying to figure out what it means to be a man in this modern age. Women’s roles improved and changed radically with the advent of the nation state, with technology – birth control, better medicine so women survive childbirth. It’s also changed men’s lives, but not in the same ways, and we’ve never really worked that out. 

Men in the West right now are in a lot of trouble. When women are in trouble, there are problems, but mobs of women don’t burn down cities. Young men do. If young men aren’t doing well, we’re all in trouble. If anyone is upset about Peterson’s focus, I say to young women, “What kind of man do you want to marry?” We need good men.

The “buckos” help cut down a tree at VanderKlay’s church. (VanderKlay in orange)

CC: You described him as “works righteousness,” the stern uncle. What about God’s grace? 

VanderKlay: People tell Peterson “you saved my life,” but that’s only gonna get them so far. The values he’s giving them are important values – clean your room, take responsibility – but all of this is nested in the age of decay. All of this taking responsibility is not going to rescue you from sin and death. You still will stumble. You’re going to slip up. You’re not the perfect man. That’s where the gospel comes in. 

Peterson is a good entry to misery, but deliverance and gratitude – they’ve always been complicated. Do we really believe that Jesus has in fact saved the world? Are we actually living lives of obedience out of gratitude, or are we trying to avoid Jesus by avoiding sin, in the words of Flannery O’Connor?

CC: What’s next?

VanderKlay: There’s potential here for real missional opportunity for the church, and I’d like to see the church take it. To ask: What would God have us do in this moment, for these people in this world that God loves? 

In some ways the Christian Reformed Church is well positioned to speak into this moment. We’re not allergic to Darwin like some fundamentalists; we’re a little skittish of Jung, with reason; but we’ve always had two “books,” via Kuyper and Bavinck. We’ve never been afraid of God from below: the Lord of creation is the Lord of redemption. Are we able to be generous and listen and not too fast to try and close the deal? Can we maintain a conversation without trying to end with a Sinner’s Prayer? 

Would I love you to adopt my religion? Absolutely. But will I continue to love you and respect you even if you don’t? Absolutely.   

Related Story: 
New Film Tracks Peterson’s Rise to Stardom

  • Angela became Editor of CC in 2009, having learned English grammar in Moscow, research skills in grad school and everything else on the fly. Her vision is for CC to give body to a Reformed perspective by exploring what it means to follow Jesus today. She hopes that the shared stories of God at work in the world inspire each reader to participate in the ongoing task of renewing his creation. Angela lives in Newcastle, Ontario with her husband, Allan, and three children.

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