Jordan Peterson and Toxic Shame in Evangelicalism

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I just read an article by Anthony Bradley from King’s College on the role that Jordan Peterson plays among young, evangelical men. I doubt that I agree with all the psychology in here, but he lays his finger on an interesting point. I’ll allow him to speak for himself: “With Peterson, young men get a truth-telling sage who empathizes with their suffering, compassionately cares about their hearts, invites them to greatness instead of niceness, and calls them to hope and humility without shaming.”

He lays out some of the shame-tactics used on young men and men in general of the last 50 years of the church in North America. He describes the Promise Keepers of the 1990s: “The well-intentioned Promise Keepers movement, in part, set out to save men, retrieve ‘biblical manhood,’ and put men in ‘accountability groups’ that would restrain their masculinity from growing sinfully out of control.” He talks about John Eldredge of ‘Wild at Heart’ who reduced masculinity to living out West in the outdoors. He points out how the Young Restless and Reformed pastors with their flannel-shirts and beer-bottle in hand berated young men for porn addiction, video games, singleness, and not ‘manning up’. He talks about how we were also berated for wasting our lives in the early 2000s.

Now, I am cautious to diss these movements as much as he does, because there were and are a lot of godly men working in these movements, including John Piper and Kevin DeYoung. He paints these movements along the lines of the more extreme fringes like Mark Driscoll and men like him. He also doesn’t take the time to note the gospel nature of these movements. But I agree with Anthony Bradley that there has been a tendency towards ‘toxic shame’ in evangelical circles. As he writes: “Toxic shame, then, leads men to self-assess as pathetic, weak, worthless, stupid, cowardly, foolish, inadequate, insufficient, or never good enough.” We all know that feeling, and the morbid introspection which has also been at times encouraged among men (and women) even in Reformed, Presbyterian, and evangelical circles.

Jordan Peterson does not have the same view of sin as Christians do, otherwise he would confess Christ. He is not a Christian. But the way in which he challenges men without shaming them is something that we can learn from. Christian men must function essentially as fathers in our culture because there are a huge lack of fathers. If a father continually shames his son, his son will go in a bad direction. If he points his son to his new identity in Christ, or the possibility of a new identity in Christ, his son will see his sin, but not wallow in the shame.

One of the aspects of my church tradition that I love is that the worship begins with a reading of the law (conviction of sin), followed by a time of confession (usually in song), and then an assurance of pardon. The assurance of pardon is one of my favourite parts of the worship service to lead, and the opportunity to read off a new text from Scripture every Sunday, letting people know who Christ is. Shame is never a good motivator. Grace in the middle of shame is the greatest motivator.

Jordan Peterson, cuts through a lot of the crap and the sap and just tells men to get off of their butts and do something. But, of course, I learned exactly the same thing from my parents and authors like Kevin De Young (Just Do Something) and many more Reformed pastors and leaders. Jordan Peterson has a lot of practical advise for our age. But he misses out on the scandalous edge of the gospel, the love of a Father shown in the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ. It is my prayer that Peterson will find that adoption as a son. Ultimately, it is the grace of God which cuts through the crap.

We can learn from Peterson, but we can also recognize that he is missing out on one of the central ingredients of raising godly men in a godless culture. In fact, I would like to thank him for his very practical rebukes, but also offer to him the only way to salvation, the way of the gospel. The only way we can move beyond toxic shame is by coming to reckon with the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. And this comes by being truly evangelical. There we take real responsibility for our sin and when that happens, we then enter into a new world of forgiveness and life. This is also where we can do real self-examination without wallowing in shame. We can take responsibility and look at our sins with an objective eye, because that is not our primary identity. We are not victims of our sinful nature. Rather, we are servants and soldiers of Jesus Christ.

Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash

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