Why are men so attracted to the message of Jordan Peterson? Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, came to public fame when he spoke against a Canadian law that stifles freedom of speech and intends to protect “gender identity and expression,” yet his comprehensive work is what has captivated the masses. His most recent book, 12 Rules for Life, was one of the top selling books in 2018 and is currently one of the most listened to books on Audible. Why? What is his message? With respect to the breadth and depth of his work, and in danger of over simplification, his message is merely this: “man up.” The overture to responsible, assertive masculinity is one of the primary reasons men are attracted to Jordan Peterson.
The colloquial phrase “man up” has never lost its potency in our society. The expression is not as vibrant in our politically correct culture, but its meaning still lingers. Nestled in the nuance of the phrase is a glimmer of a call to a man’s true identity, not merely a false identity of hyper masculinity. Implied in the phrase is this challenge: be what you were meant to be, a man. Peterson captures the inherent value in that challenge—be what you were meant to be—and it evokes the interest of the masses.
Peterson challenges men to be what they were meant to be and to fulfill that calling by bringing order to chaos. He presents no illusions about taking up the challenge and guarantees inevitable danger. Although prima facie his message seems to lack appeal, it is nevertheless compelling, not because some Canadian phenom has uttered it but because at the heart of the message, I believe, men can hear someone more phenomenal: their Creator. They may fail to recognize the echo of the true voice, but the voice cries out nonetheless.
What the masses perceive as Peterson’s call for males to cease being passive, the Canadian genius’s new message, is actually an ancient message from the genius of God. Here’s the message: be what you were meant to be by bringing order to the world. We see this challenge in the creation mandate of Genesis 1. It was this call that was meant to be man’s purpose and fulfillment of life on the earth. There is no more enthralling and fascinating summons from God to man. That summons must be heard by men in the church and church leaders must tap into the genius of that call—to bring order to chaos.
Heralded by some as a sort of pseudo-savior for modern male psychology, Peterson has gathered an enormous following. To be clear, Peterson is no shining example of Christian orthodoxy. There are axioms to his belief system and psychological presuppositions that Christians should reject. Nevertheless, Peterson’s challenge to men to do hard things is reminiscent of Jesus, who told men, “follow me and it’ll be the hardest thing you’ll ever do, but it’ll be every bit worth it.” Christians would do well to take note of the appeal that this kind of call has. This isn’t bravado masculinity or macho masculinity. The call that Jesus makes, and that Peterson reflects, is a call for all men to exercise dominion over their own lives.
Jesus challenged men to follow him promising it would be no easy feat, but they’ll have an unfathomable reward. He told men that if they followed him there was no secure resting place in this present world, for he said that foxes and birds have a more secure resting place than him. He declared that a man must deny himself and take up his cross. The imagery is stark—bearing an enormously heavy burden uphill, ravished with blood, sweat, pain, and sorrow. Even so, men still followed. Why? Because something in them knew that this message and their life is inextricably tied to the challenge of bringing order to a chaotic world under the guise of a watchful God. There was a magnetic nature to a Man who claimed that he was putting the world back to rights, calling them to join in on the dangerous action, boasting of its reward, and obtaining life in the dawning of a new age.
It is a guarantee that if church leaders begin to emulate Jesus in his dangerous challenge to men, men will follow. Jesus promised when men follow his example, he will make them “fishers of men.”
Jesus’ model of getting men to follow him is counterintuitive to any attractional model the church tries to invent to get men to be “involved” in the life of the church. On the contrary, church leaders must constantly envisage the gospel as a dangerous yet victorious event. That is the kind of call that will engage the hearts of men. That gospel will be heard as a war cry inviting them to join into the battle and enjoy the spoils of war. Jesus did it with his disciples. Paul did it with Timothy. The chief message that calls men to action in the church is the challenge to abandon what seems to be important in this present age and live in the new age, now—“seek first the kingdom of God and all its righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33). Jesus not only challenged men to this, he did it himself.
God has designed men to respond to this kind of challenge. Jesus, the perfect man, the exact imprint of the image of God, is seen as a man responding heroically to the most daunting challenge. In Revelation where the Apostle John begins to weep because there seemed to be no man worthy to respond to the challenge to open the scroll, the angel shouts, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” (Rev. 5:5). Jesus himself is seen as a man responding to a challenge to usher in redemptive history. This is the distinct imprint of the image of God on masculinity—response to challenge.
Church leaders must be aware and sensitive to the dangers of unconsciously promoting hyper masculinity or radical feminism. Even so, church leaders ought to understand why Peterson has become a secular prophet. He is being heard by a culture that views manhood as a curable disease. Peterson’s message resonates with men in part because it is consistent with how God has designed men. Perhaps it’s because the men that follow Peterson hear the voice that is innate to them; they hear the voice of their Creator saying, “man up” or, more likely, follow me.
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