Engage.Mail

Shopping Cart

checkout

Book Review: 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos

Tuesday, 6 March 2018  | Megan Powell du Toit




I can understand why Jordan Peterson is getting so much attention. For those worried about disaffected and angry young men, his message of personal responsibility seems like an antidote that might get through. For those worried about a perceived sidelining of Christianity, his fairly positive assessment and use of the Bible is encouraging. For conservatives afraid of the excesses of the alt right, his professorship and calm demeanour under pressure are comforting, while his criticism of postmodern society resonates.

He has been getting a lot of social media affirmation and interest. Friends I respect have shared him with approval. But some of what they were sharing gave me pause. The quotes and short videos shared meant it was difficult to judge what his main message was. So, in a spirit of genuine investigation, I read his new book. And I am concerned now that what I view as a flawed message is seemingly being hailed as the answer by many Christians. To those Christians, I want to say that I understand your fears about society. I also understand your desire to give dignity and purpose to people, especially young men. I have sons about to become young men. But I think we need to put those aside and read Peterson from a more critical position. Can we as Christians really embrace what he has to say? Or is there a better way forward?

His title ‘12 rules for life: an antidote to chaos’ puts the book squarely in the self-help genre. He explains in his preface that the book came out of an approach from a publisher for a guide to life, and he decided to base it around a list of rules he had already done for Quora. So my first concern as a Christian is the general usefulness of self-help books. One could say that the gospel is an answer to the failure of humanity to be able to ‘self-help’. People can find them useful, but they don’t substitute for deep personal transformation, and they tend to focus on individual change, ignoring the systemic causes for problems.

The second half of the title reveals two major pillars of the book. Firstly, the book is based upon Peterson’s theories around Order and Chaos. In this, he borrows from Taoist dualism (yin and yang). While we acknowledge the reality of both good and evil, this type of dualism in which the universe is conceived of as a balance of opposites is not a Christian view, and any attempt to shoehorn Christian thinking into it is going to fundamentally alter that teaching. Secondly, he specifically identifies Chaos as the ‘eternal feminine’. Thus an antidote to chaos is an antidote to what he identifies with the feminine. As a woman, I find this too easily collapsed into the female, and dispute the identifications he makes with what is feminine. The book constantly associates the feminine with the aspects of society that need to be countered. I say countered, as although Peterson says he seeks balance, in reality he rarely speaks positively about that which he sees as feminine. The subtitle ‘an antidote’ is only too apt. I found this troubling. While Peterson says he respects women, my experience of this book was that as a woman I felt misunderstood and viewed as that which must be countered.[1] I do not think we serve young men well by teaching them to view women in this simplified and, in my view, diminished, fashion. An image of God theology that teaches that all humans, men and women, have great dignity and value in a common bearing of the image of God is much to be preferred to this dualistic archetypal vision.

The twelve rules themselves are examples of individualistic self-responsibility. Certainly, teaching people to take responsibility for themselves is good advice. But it isn’t the whole story. We also need to teach people how society works, that some people have more power, and that some have less. That some are much more vulnerable. It is the tension held so beautifully in Galatians 6, in which we both carry our own load (v.5) but also each other’s burdens (v.2). For me, to carry another’s burdens must involve an acknowledgment of how power and privilege operate. This is why we have a God who gives preferential treatment to those with less power.[2]

We can’t counteract this by then giving people something more communal-minded to read alongside Peterson. For this mindset permeates every rule he has, the entire content of this book. The first three rules are good examples of this. The first: Stand up straight with your shoulders back. This reads like it advises a good dose of self-respect. But this is the chapter that leans heavily on a particular reading of evolution. This is a chapter about competition. He uses lobsters and the competitive dynamics between them to try to generalise to humans. This ignores the much more highly complicated social environment of human beings and the differing effects of brain chemistry.[3] Moreover, it reduces us as humans to our biology in a way that I think should make Christians uncomfortable. Whatever the call of our flesh, we are called to a better way. Thus, any argument that talks about top and bottom lobsters, and urges us to behave as a top lobster, should give us pause. Instead of an ethic based around trying to be the top lobster, ours should be based around self-emptying servanthood. Or take the second rule. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping. Not bad advice for living sensibly. But look at how he uses the Golden Rule in this chapter. He quotes Jung to read it as ‘this means embracing and loving the sinner who is yourself, as much as forgiving and aiding someone else’. The emphasis isn’t on loving the other; it has swapped around to be about loving yourself. While the Golden Rule implicitly accepts a regard for self, I’m still of the view that most of us suffer from too much self-love, and not enough other-love.

The third rule is to make friends with those who want the best for you. Pragmatically this is excellent advice. Who we associate with makes an impact on our lives. But I’m rather glad Jesus ignored this advice. In fact, Jesus’ model is so problematic to Peterson’s argument that he specifically addresses it. He says ‘but Christ was the archetypal perfect man. And you’re you’. Our imperfection is used, not to urge us on to perfection, but to argue against the attempt. He argues that we wouldn’t like our loved ones to have bad friends. Well, I beg to differ. I would rather come alongside my sons and help them reach out in love to those friends who are struggling. He argues that the best aid we can give to the unhealthy is to cut ourselves off from them and show them an example of how to be healthy. It certainly is an easier path. It sometimes becomes a necessary path, but this should be a reason for regret. It also ignores why people may be ‘bad’ friends. It usually is to do with entrenched disadvantage, connected with poverty, race, family dysfunction and health issues.

I want to pick up on some key concerns I have in the rest of the book. The chapter on the seventh rule I found revealing about how we are to understand his use of Christian scriptures and values. It’s a rule about the delay of gratification. It’s good advice, but is an ethic that speaks to self-regard rather than to other-centred love. Within this chapter, though, is the acceptance of a Nietzschean criticism of the removal of moral responsibility in the protestant understanding of grace. This is not surprising in a book that deifies self-responsibility at the expense of compassionate social understanding. But grace is something we should take very seriously. Grace isn’t a side concept in our faith. It is central. To remove it is to radically change it.

In chapter nine, I was deeply troubled by a section on a woman he had counselled who seems to have been the victim of multiple sexual assaults. She herself, according to his account, is unsure about whether it is rape, but it seems clear to me her consent was impaired due to alcohol. Women are often likely to overestimate their own culpability in assault, as we have internalised the societal message that women are to blame. His internal monologue about what he thought about her is distressing. For instance ‘I thought, “part of you wants to be taken… part of you is guilty… another part is thrilled and excited” …’. He thinks ‘she is a danger to herself and others’ and states that ‘there was no way of knowing the objective truth’. He decides not to tell her his suspicions about her, but instead to listen. I remain disturbed, though, that he had these thoughts in the first place, since they reveal a victim-blaming mentality. He also refuses to acknowledge to her that evil was done to her. His view of her is saturated with disdain, and this makes me question his reporting of the case. The epidemic of sexual violence towards women is too pervasive for us to turn a blind eye to such attitudes, no matter how they may be couched, such as here in a lesson about listening and self-responsibility.

In chapter eleven, he suggests that children need to be given more freedom to take on risks and become more resilient. I’ve said this myself. It’s an often-stated critique of modern parenting. However, the chapter itself seems to be more about gender. This rule seems to be more what he thinks boys need, when I would argue it is good for both boys and girls. What follows is a very tendentious reading of history and statistics around gender. It overplays male struggles and sets up female struggles as a function of ignoring biology. In this, he ignores the vast literature on the oppression women continue to face. As Christians we need to break away from this type of argumentation. First of all, because it doesn’t serve truth well, and truth is a value we want to uphold. Secondly, because love calls us to recognise and alleviate the real pain and suffering in our world, whoever it affects and however it might unsettle our worldview.

In summary, there is some useful responsibility advice, but it is all stamped with an individualism that ignores systemic issues. Yes, this is Peterson’s point, that individual responsibility will produce better change. However, if this were the answer, Western society would be in a much better state than it is. This kind of advice has until recently characterised popular wisdom. Yet our troubles aren’t mere decades old. Moreover, Peterson has an underlying disrespect for women that will only cause more suffering. This leads to advice that, in my view, does not measure up to the teaching or model of Jesus. I do not think we should look to Peterson for an answer to the fears and desires I mentioned at the start of this article.

In this I agree with my friend Michael Jensen. Michael has a more positive view of Peterson than I, but he also offered this critique in an interview recently:

 The thing I think Peterson misses out on is that actually Jesus Christ is the better story. He’s a better story for all human beings.

Exactly. So this is my plea to those of my Christian brothers and sisters who have found Peterson compelling. Please, instead, develop a Christian answer: one that centres on Jesus and overflows with grace.

Megan Powell du Toit is an ordained Baptist minister, Publishing Manager for the Australian College of Theology and editor of the academic journal Colloquium. She is currently writing a doctoral thesis on how we respond to tensions within evangelicalism.



[1] I find this consistent with the way he speaks of women elsewhere, such as this video, which in my view is too quick to praise aggression and speaks of women in a disparaging way: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dL3Hrwg3A3w&vl=en.

[2] In biblical terms, the widows, orphans, slaves and foreigners.


Comments

Alex Smith
March 6, 2018, 9:50PM
Thanks Megan for taking the time to read the book and engage with it. I particularly liked your gracious first paragraph. You raise some good points; at the same time, there are some that I think warrant further genuine investigation :-) e.g.:

> His title ‘12 rules for life: an antidote to chaos’ puts the book squarely in the self-help genre.

Peterson is encouraging more than mere *self*-help:

'You should aim at the highest good that you can imagine and that would be a good that includes *everyone*. So if I wanted what was good for you, say, if I genuinely wanted it, I’d want it in a way that was good for you now and good in the long run—and good for you and your *family* and your *community* and may be good for me too. … I think that’s a good definition of love is—that you actually want the best. You want the best possible outcome and in the Gospels, of course, that’s extended even to your *enemies*.' https://youtu.be/kL61yQgdWeM?t=48m56s

>… I agree with my friend Michael Jensen. Michael has a more positive view of Peterson than I, but he also offered this critique in an interview recently: The thing I think Peterson misses out on is that actually Jesus Christ is the better story. He’s a better story for all human beings.

Admittedly, I'm only a Facebook friend of Michael Jensen but I did engage with critique recently at https://reforminghell.com/2018/02/19/give-jordan-peterson-a-fair-go-mate/.
Alex Smith
March 6, 2018, 9:51PM
> One could say that the gospel is an answer to the failure of humanity to be able to ‘self-help’.

I agree no one can earn their salvation or force God to accept them or consistently act as they ought. At the same time, the Bible still has plenty to say (both wisdom and commands) about how each person should strive to live (summarised as 'love God and everyone else too').

> So my first concern as a Christian is the general usefulness of self-help books. … People can find them useful, but they don’t substitute for deep personal transformation,

Peterson's books & lectures encourage "deep personal transformation" (e.g. 'there's no genuine repentance without [the] understanding of the depth of your depravity' - https://youtu.be/A9JtQN_GoVI?t=2h2m6s).

> and they tend to focus on individual change, ignoring the systemic causes for problems.

He doesn't ignore the systemic causes but follows Jesus' advice of 'take the log out of your eye before trying to take the speck out of someone else's eye' and 'If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit'. Peterson explains that, like Joseph, once we've turned to God and are following Jesus on the narrow road, then we can actually help address the systemic causes properly (potentially helping all of 'Egypt'!). He also uses the example of Noah, who sorted his immediate relationships out (Gen 6:9) before participating in God's plan to save humanity. Similarly, Daniel didn't start by trying to fix Babylon. Jesus didn't start by tackling the institutions of the corrupt Roman Empire; instead, he rightly identified and started with the primary cause — the evil in each & every human heart. Overcoming systemic problems is something that rightly flows out of seeing individuals transformed by the Holy Spirit (although, even then, the primary concern for the individual was to be a godly follower of Christ — that getting one's rights, while good, was secondary to that).
Alex Smith
March 7, 2018, 9:28AM
> The second half of the title reveals two major pillars of the book. Firstly, the book is based upon Peterson’s theories around Order and Chaos. In this, he borrows from Taoist dualism (yin and yang). While we acknowledge the reality of both good and evil, this type of dualism in which the universe is conceived of as a balance of opposites is not a Christian view, and any attempt to shoehorn Christian thinking into it is going to fundamentally alter that teaching.

Peterson draws on many corroborating sources when talking about Order and Chaos (e.g. Babylonian and Egyptian mythology, Genesis, John, and other parts of the Bible, as well as how our brains hemispheres work). Peterson says that, unlike God, humans are constantly interacting with the known (Order) and the unknown (chaos). However, he doesn't say Order and good are synonymous (e.g. the wrong kind of Order, totalitarianism, is evil), neither does he say chaos and evil are synonymous (e.g. God brought forth life out of it). Peterson doesn't think the universe is a balance of good and evil, but that we should be orientated towards The Good (God) and striving against evil, indeed:

"I've become convinced, actually, that good is a more powerful force than evil." - https://youtu.be/A9JtQN_GoVI?t=2h10m26s

"There's no evil so evil that good cannot triumph over it." - https://youtu.be/B7V8eZ1BLiI?t=2h8m48s
Alex Smith
March 7, 2018, 3:58PM
> Secondly, he specifically identifies Chaos as the ‘eternal feminine’. Thus an antidote to chaos is an antidote to what he identifies with the feminine.

I think that step in your argument is problematic as Wisdom, the Church, the Earth, countries, boats, cars, hurricanes etc. are also traditionally identified metaphorically as feminine — and surely Peterson doesn't see his book as an antidote to those things…?

> As a woman, I find this too easily collapsed into the female, and dispute the identifications he makes with what is feminine. The book constantly associates the feminine with the aspects of society that need to be countered. I say countered, as although Peterson says he seeks balance, in reality he rarely speaks positively about that which he sees as feminine.

That's not been my experience — I've heard him point out the positive feminine many times. He also says both *males* & females have feminine aspects so people 'shouldn't' be treating 'feminine' and 'female' as synonymous.

> The subtitle ‘an antidote’ is only too apt. I found this troubling. While Peterson says he respects women, my experience of this book was that as a woman I felt misunderstood and viewed as that which must be countered.

Feeling misunderstood and opposed is unpleasant.

> I do not think we serve young men well by teaching them to view women in this simplified and, in my view, diminished, fashion.

I agree we shouldn't teach a simplistic view of women. At the same time, I think Peterson's view is more nuanced than you realise—unfortunately, it sounds like he hasn't conveyed it clearly enough in his book (although it should be noted that it's only an introductory, general audience book and that his academic book, papers and lectures are far more comprehensive).

> An image of God theology that teaches that all humans, men and women, have great dignity and value in a common bearing of the image of God is much to be preferred to this dualistic archetypal vision.

You might be relieved to hear that in his Genesis lectures he also does promote 'An image of God theology that teaches that all humans, men and women, have great dignity and value in a common bearing of the image of God'. :-)
Alex Smith
March 7, 2018, 7:16PM
> The twelve rules themselves are examples of individualistic self-responsibility. Certainly, teaching people to take responsibility for themselves is good advice. But it isn’t the whole story. We also need to teach people how society works, that some people have more power, and that some have less. That some are much more vulnerable. It is the tension held so beautifully in Galatians 6, in which we both carry our own load (v.5) but also each other’s burdens (v.2). For me, to carry another’s burdens must involve an acknowledgment of how power and privilege operate. This is why we have a God who gives preferential treatment to those with less power.

I agree but, as I noted earlier, Peterson isn't just about 'individualistic self-responsibility' but also about family, community, etc. In his Q&As he does acknowledge 'power and privilege' and even in his book he talks about the limits of the individual eg:

'Gratefully accept an outstretched helping hand. … note the reality of the limitations of individual being… accept and be thankful for the support of others—family, friends, acquaintances and strangers alike. … we don’t have to strive alone' — Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, p.365.
Vern Hughes
March 9, 2018, 8:42PM
New York Times columnist David Brooks' assessment of Jordan Peterson is right: 'His recipe for self-improvement is solitary, nonrelational, unemotional'. As UK theologian John Milbank says: 'too Protestant'.

A better recipe is via the relational, through loving attachments and self-giving, which is a rather traditional Christian approach to life.

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/25/opinion/jordan-peterson-moment.html
Jon
March 15, 2018, 10:20PM
I second Alex’s comments. I appreciate the genuine and gracious engagement. I personally don’t agree with Peterson’s evolutionary basis for human culture. However I think he is a deeper thinker than the majority of his commentators. He is just not a theologian, and he is only a philosopher as far as it suits his purposes.

Also I think you can marry Peterson’s ideas to Jean Vanier's and Henri Nouwen's communal ideas (some of the best communal ideas ever written) and, if you did that from the perspective of a real God, with a real grace, with a real Holy Spirit, with the aim to gather a people for himself and demonstrate his glorious character through the voluntary heart-on-sleeve vulnerability to suffering to the whole world that whosoever will may come, then yes, you get both the hero's journey and God's hospitable love for the outcast through his bumbling band of fool-heroes, 'the church', orchestrated and sustained by the true Hero who became a fool for our sake.
Alex C Smith
March 18, 2018, 4:23PM
'We can’t counteract this by then giving people something more communal-minded to read alongside Peterson. For this mindset permeates every rule he has, the entire content of this book. The first three rules are good examples of this. The first: Stand up straight with your shoulders back. This reads like it advises a good dose of self-respect. But this is the chapter that leans heavily on a particular reading of evolution. This is a chapter about competition. He uses lobsters and the competitive dynamics between them to try to generalise to humans. This ignores the much more highly complicated social environment of human beings and the differing effects of brain chemistry. Moreover, it reduces us as humans to our biology in a way that I think should make Christians uncomfortable. Whatever the call of our flesh, we are called to a better way. Thus, any argument that talks about top and bottom lobsters, and urges us to behave as a top lobster, should give us pause. Instead of an ethic based around trying to be the top lobster, ours should be based around self-emptying servanthood.'

I think his discussion of lobsters was meant to show two things. Firstly, hierarchies have been around essentially forever, certainly far longer than humans have, so we shouldn't simplistically blame them solely on men. Having read/watched many hours of his other material, I'm confident he's not trying to reduce humans to mere biology (e.g. see https://youtu.be/iRPDGEgaATU?t=7m). Secondly, when faced with a responsibility or challenge, instinctively and understandably, we may well want to avoid it or curl up into a ball but even on a physiological level, this only makes the situation worse. Instead, we need to try to be like a winning lobster—standing up straight—as that will actually increase the chances of success. I just skimmed back over the chapter but didn't see him saying we should try to be the top lobster…? He does say we should try to be competent while having the humility to realise we're very limited and to try to avoid being a tyrant to anyone.
John Green
August 1, 2018, 9:38PM
I'm sorry but I find the author of this review's cherrypicking and selective critique does a considerable disservice to the book. For example, it will be clear to anyone reading the book that Peterson is not a misogynist - and to imply or suggest otherwise does a considerable disservice. It should be patently clear to the reader that he discusses the eternal masculine and feminine and never conflates these with male and female (as the reviewer seem to do).

That Peterson is not a Christian is not in dispute. That said, the book will take you on the journey of the prodigal, all the way to the moment before the meeting with the Father. It is indisputable that this book has had just that effect on the lives of a great many people and that it has done so is a testimony to the paucity of the thinking, intellectual authority and reach of modern Christians.

Peterson's book is a significant and profound piece of authorship that Christians should read. I would have loved to see a debate between Peterson and Schaeffer. For those interested, I would recommend the video of Peterson and Russel Brand discussing Job - I found it very insightful and moving.

Got something to add?

  • Your Comment


RSS RSS Feed

Online Resources


subscribe to engage.mail

follow us


Latest Articles