For a myriad of reasons — not the least of which is that I used to concentrate my law practice on suing universities for violating students’ First Amendment rights — most of my public speeches, most of my public interactions, and much of my writing have been aimed squarely at America’s Millennial generation. It’s not breaking any ground to note that, aside from those young people who occupy the comforting confines of ideological extremism, many millions of American young people just seem lost.
They’re deeply suspicious of organized religion, yet they can’t escape the nagging need for transcendence in their lives. They want answers to great questions, but they’re suspicious of authority. They want purpose, but they don’t know what purpose means apart from careerism. Oh, and all but the most politically correct are keenly aware that mankind is fallen, that men and women are different, and that, while the post-Christian West has allegedly killed God, it can’t seem to replace him with anything better.
This is the landscape of spiraling rates of anxiety and depression, of extended adolescence, and of a generation of young men who’ve been told that masculinity is “toxic” but not taught how to live in a way that recognizes or even cares to comprehend their true nature.
Or, as University of Toronto psychologist Jordan B. Peterson explains in a key passage from his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, “What has emerged from behind [the corpse of Christian dogma], however — and this is of central importance — is something even more dead; something that was never alive, even in the past: nihilism, as well as an equally dangerous susceptibility to new, totalizing utopian ideals.” The Western world replaced its ancient morality — rooted in and developed from Christianity — with an inevitably inadequate invented value system.
As Peterson says, “We cannot invent our own values, because we cannot merely impose what we believe on our souls.”
Peterson has become a sensation and a lightning rod. His YouTube videos receive millions of views, and the mere mention of his name infuriates social-justice warriors. He achieved a degree of public prominence when he famously refused to bow to pressure to use “chosen” pronouns for transgender people (unless specifically asked), and he’s got little patience for far-left cultural intolerance.
But an unwillingness to bow to political correctness describes any number of conservative culture warriors, most of whom aren’t close to becoming Internet sensations and will never write books that are the talk of the Anglosphere, earning headlines in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. Why is Peterson different?
The key can be found in his book. If you were to design in a laboratory a message and a messenger perfectly calibrated to scratch the itch of millions of lost Millennial souls, Peterson’s your man and12 Rules for Life is the message. Superficially, it’s a self-help book, providing a helpful set of maxims that can, to borrow a phrase from a previous self-help sensation, help the reader live a purpose-driven life.
But that’s just the hook. The core of the book is really something else entirely. From Rule 1, “Stand up straight with your shoulders back,” to Rule 12, “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street,” Peterson uses his rules as a launching pad to help the reader rediscover something that’s been lost: not just the tools to improve your life but an entire moral framework that’s anchored not only in psychology but also, crucially, in copious amounts of Biblical analysis.
In fact, there’s so much Bible in Peterson’s phenomenally successful book 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.
Critical to Peterson’s presentation is how little he asks the reader to trust him. Simple points are supported by combinations of elaborate personal stories, brief digressions into the history of Christianity, and extended discussions of modern psychological theories and interesting psychological experiments. Yes, he talks about simple things such as body posture, but he does so in the context of a far more complex discussion of the psychological effects of victory and defeat throughout the animal kingdom and in human societies.
Yet even as he speaks about science and scientific truth, he shuns science fetishism and places even ethics in its proper place, declaring religion “older and deeper,” concerned with “ultimate value.” “That is not the scientific domain,” he says. “It’s not the territory of empirical description.” It is the land of dogma, and Peterson argues (directly defying modern convention) that dogma is necessary. “What good is a value system that does not provide a stable structure?”
He speaks with a refreshing indifference to political correctness. The book reads as an earnest search for truth wherever he can find it, not an argument targeted specifically against any given intellectual or political fad. And it’s this search for truth that is the true counter to the cultural Marxism and stifling intellectual conformity of the modern academy. All too many conservatives learn what intolerant progressives want them to believe and then simply do the opposite, but even that form of opposition allows social-justice warriors to set the agenda. It allows them to dictate your conduct.
Peterson’s book is something else entirely. Yes, of course, he knows and deals with the intellectual and moral arguments of the past few decades, but he’s far more interested in mining for moral truths in the vast sweep of human history, with the Bible perhaps the central reference of his entire literary project.
But make no mistake, this is not a “Christian” book, and it’s not necessarily written for a Christian audience. Indeed, as a conservative Calvinist Christian, I found some of his critiques of Reformation theology unconvincing. Moreover, readers who are already grounded in a Biblical worldview will find some of the counsel extraordinarily elementary.
But this is not a book aimed at people who are steeped in complementarianism or who fully understand that a person’s fundamental goal in life is not to achieve happiness but rather to “take up his cross” and follow the teaching and example of Jesus Christ. This is a book aimed at people who’ve been wrongly taught to scorn Christianity, who’ve been asked to invent their own belief system, and who do actually believe that the central goal in life is to be happy. In other words, it’s a book aimed squarely at the cultural majority.
For that lost world, this book is a beacon of light. People who read it and apply its lessons will find themselves reading the words of Christ, demonstrating moral courage, and standing tall not primarily to vindicate their own rights but to love and serve others. Peterson describes a purpose-driven life that tells each person there is a way to make tomorrow better than today and there is wisdom in forgotten or despised places. It’s not a book designed to blaze a trail to the boardroom or to maximize any person’s health or wealth. Instead, it’s got a simpler and more profound purpose: to help a person look in the mirror and respect the person he or she sees.
DAVID FRENCH — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. @davidafrench