For about a month now, I’ve been trying to sort out why so many of my male students—Christian guys in their twenties—are such huge fans of Jordan Peterson. By the end of chapter two of his new book, The Twelve Rules for Life, I had my answer.
Peterson understands something about the world of men that evangelical pastors seem to have been clueless about for almost thirty years. It is simply this: since the 1980s, young men have been shamed and emasculated in a culture determined to destroy the archetypal masculinity of figures like Jesus Christ.
How We Got Here
Evangelical pastors and leaders have been exegeting the culture of men from an outdated, mid-1960s cultural playbook—a playbook that often reduced men to lustful sinners who think too highly of themselves and need to be tamed by someone reminding them of their destined depravity. Excoriating men, then, is what sensitized men to the gospel. The Builder generation taught the approach to Baby Boomers, who taught it to GenXers, who taught it to emerging Millennial leaders. What did they miss? Perhaps because of a non-biblical fetish with the “culture war,” or lusting after access to power by syncretizing Christianity with the politics of the Republican party, many evangelical leaders paid too much attention to the social disintegration of archetypal masculinity that pervaded American society in the 1970s and 1980s instead of the masculinity implosion within the walls of their own churches.
In the early 1990s, however, poets and psychologists influenced by psychologist Carl Jung were sounding a loud alarm. Jungian-influenced poets (like Robert Bly) and Jungian psychologists (like Robert L. Moore and Douglas Gillette with books such as King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine) were key figures in what became the 1990s “Men’s Movement.”
While Jungians, post-liberal Protestants (like Sam Keen), and Roman Catholics (like Patrick Arnold in his book Wildmen, Warriors, and Kings: Masculine Spirituality and the Bible) borrowed heavily from the Jungian archetypal discourse on masculinity, evangelicals—with their aversion to secular social sciences—were excited instead by “Promise Keepers,” which launched in 1990. 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. While evangelicals were directing men to pledge their allegiance to moralistic promises, Jungians were trying to help men recover their hearts and souls. Jordan Peterson is retrieving the Jungian archetypal discussion for the disintegrated, shame-driven, emasculated lives of young men for the twenty-first century.
Evangelicals were not reading psychiatrists like Andrew P. Morrison or historians like Christopher Lasch, both of whom saw that the narcissism brewing in America life increasingly valued people on the basis of performance. A narcissistic and performance-oriented culture eventually becomes a culture characterized by perfectionism. A perfectionist culture sets up every man to be destroyed by the shame of not measuring up to his idealized self.
The world that nurtured Millennial and GenZ men is that of exaggerated and romanticized versions of masculine success aimed at winning the validation and affirmation of others. In this perfectionistic world, you never measure up, which forces you to think there’s something ontologically wrong with you. Toxic shame, then, leads men to self-assess as pathetic, weak, worthless, stupid, cowardly, foolish, inadequate, insufficient, or never good enough.
Boomers and GenXers continued to browbeat, berate, and shame Millennials and GenZ teens for trying to numb their shame with drugs, alcohol, video games, sexual promiscuity, pornography, and so on. The shame that young men carried was re-shamed by ministry leaders who wanted these men to feel low enough for the gospel. What they didn’t understand was that these young men were acquainted with lowliness. A large percentage of men born after 1990 already felt weak, beaten down, and worthless. Young men needed empathetic pastors to build them up to be the men that God created them to be.
The Evangelical Prophet
Jordan Peterson is the prophet who understands this reality. As an observant Jungian and college professor, Peterson knows that thirty years of raising men in a culture that destroyed the archetypal, aspirational Jesus needs the antidote of empathy, encouragement, and practical day-to-day imagination to help men recover their souls so that they can live a life that means something.
Evangelicals tried. In the early 2000s, John Eldredge attacked men’s shaming by addressing the “father wound” in Wild At Heart. But his paradigm ultimately missed the mark because he focused too much on fathers and not enough on the the other issues men face with other people in their lives. Eldredge also reduced masculinity to outdoor living in the west, which inadvertently isolated urban and suburban men.
The GenX leaders of the Young, Restless, and Reformed (YRR) movement also gave it a try. But—taking cues from their Boomer pastors—many bearded, beer-drinking, flannel-shirt-wearing, Calvinist pastors berated guys for not having good theology, for playing video games, for being single, for struggling with porn and sexual addictions, for not “manning up,” and so on. And they did this without a drop of compassion for the shame they already had. To make matters worse, many of them falsely believed that throwing five-hundred-year-old theological propositions at men’s shame would magically free them of their emasculation of never measuring up to their own expectations. But now they didn’t measure up enough for God.
Gather Your Seashells while Ye May
Associations like Acts 29 (and Acts 29-like, non-denominational, GenX and Millennial leaders) gave a valiant effort, but many of those mega churches were just as shame berating as the emasculating culture at-large. Men were destroyed in the YRR contexts because “real preaching” is making guys feel like losers for the shame they already had. Moreover, young men were yelled at to stop wasting their lives. Upper-class young men were told that their lives were pathetic models of idol factories that needed to be destroyed so they could become domesticated, humble, friendless “nice guys.”
Where We Need to Be
For empathy and encouragement, more and more young Christian men have turned to Jordan Peterson. He is the father and pastor that thousands of Millennial and GenZ men have needed for nearly thirty years. 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.
As long as young men’s shame receives no empathy and encouragement from evangelical parents and leaders, young men will continue to seek help elsewhere. In the end, if you want to know where the young men are in your church or school, they are likely at home listening to Peterson on YouTube because he is giving them the encouragement and challenge they really need. And they’re doing it with the other 750,000 subscribers.
Cover image by Jonathan Castellino.