Lots of Echoes of Exodus Stuff

I have produced a page devoted to material related to Echoes of Exodus: Tracing Themes of Redemption in Scripture. It links to dozens of talks, videos, and articles that should whet your appetite for the book and/or help you to explore some of the themes that Andrew and I discuss in it more fully.

Various people have recommended the book highly. Mark Olivero writes:

The value of the new book by Roberts and Wilson is that it is written to reach all readers—from those seeking an overview to mentors looking for another Bible study resource. At 176 pages in length Echoes of Exodus can be used as a personal guide in reading the Bible or as a study guide in a small group setting. Each chapter ends with a list of thoughtful questions for discussion or further study. This book is laid out so that its content is very accessible. You will enjoy it.

As Peter Leithart wrote a few days ago: ‘You want this book. You need this book.’

Posted in Bible, Exodus, Hermeneutics, My Books, NT, OT, Theological | 6 Comments

Podcast: Ross Douthat’s ‘To Change the Church’

Mere FidelityMatt and Derek were joined this week by Ross Douthat to discuss his new book, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism.

You can also follow the podcast on iTunes, or using this RSS feed. Listen to past episodes on Soundcloud and on this page on my blog.

You can also support the production of the podcast over on Patreon.

Posted in Church History, Controversies, Culture, Podcasts, Sex and Sexuality, Society, Theological | Leave a comment

From Gutenberg to YouVersion: The Word of God and the Technology of the Word

My recent Davenant Institute lecture on the subject of the significance of textual technologies for our engagement with Scripture has just been posted on Youtube:

I recently enjoyed watching Dr. Christopher Schlect’s highly informative and stimulating lecture in the same series.

Posted in Bible, Church History, Culture, Hermeneutics, Lectures, Scripture, The Church, Theological, Video | 2 Comments

My Writing on Jordan Peterson

Over the last few weeks and months, many thousands of people have visited my blog to read my various reflections on Jordan Peterson. Any long term follower of this blog shouldn’t be at all surprised that Peterson and the phenomena surrounding him are deeply fascinating to me.

Peterson and the phenomena surrounding him intersect with several of my personal areas of interest and research. I am, first and foremost, a Christian theologian, who gives close attention to the reading of scriptural narratives and to their significance for understanding our world. A scholar such as Peterson, who reads the scriptural stories from an unconventional and unorthodox, yet frequently illuminating angle, is a worthwhile person with whom to interact. While, perhaps more often than not, I find myself disagreeing with Peterson’s readings, he pursues far more revealing and fruitful lines of exploration that open up dimensions of the texts of which Christians have generally been neglectful.

In particular, much of my work over the last few years—the subject of my PhD research and also of my recently released book—has been concerned with biblical typology, with the ways in which biblical stories manifest deeper and meaningful patterns, patterns which give order to our lives in the present. Peterson’s interest in the psychological significance of Bible stories is addressing a similar issue from a different angle. He too recognizes that the meaning of the biblical narratives is deeper than their surfaces and that their patterns are worthy of close attention. Yet he attends to them in quite different ways from those in which I would usually do. This difference makes for stimulating interaction.

Peterson’s work raises many fundamentally religious questions. As I have argued, Peterson is seeking to articulate a post-nihilist and post-materialist view of reality that recovers existential meaning. We will fall short of appreciating his ability to speak with such power and passion into the contemporary situation if we do not grasp this. For Christians, we share a belief in a reality that sustains deep meaning. Yet we have often become lazy in interacting with atheists who lacked a strong belief in the meaningfulness of reality, so have failed to sharpen our account of this and to press it home well in our message. This is one area where I believe that we can fruitfully engage with Peterson.

As a Christian who seeks to engage receptively with the wider culture, it is also exciting to see such a culturally resonant figure seeking to engage receptively with Christianity. I believe that advancing an attentive and charitable dialogue could benefit us all greatly. While there are many reasons orthodox Christians could give, and have given, for dismissing Peterson without close interaction, I would prefer to pursue the promise of open conversation, seeing what we could all learn through it. Maintaining healthy conversation is also valuable given Peterson’s considerable appeal both within and without the Church. Where such conversation is abandoned, important bridges will be abandoned, a loss on both sides.

I am also someone who, for the last few years, has been working on a substantial project exploring a Christian understanding of the sexes. Peterson’s peculiar—yet by no means exclusive—appeal to a male audience, even though his message did not initially target them and he teaches within a field where students are overwhelmingly female, is a phenomenon worthy of close attention. This is all the more important for Christian churches, who have generally failed to make much progress with the young male demographic for whom Peterson holds remarkable appeal. Contemporary masculinity is a vexed and problematic thing in a society within which virility has come to be seen as a threat and where it is increasingly difficult for men to work out what a healthy yet non-emasculated form of manliness entails. While many may not like some or many of his answers, Peterson is addressing the question and getting real traction in ways that feminist visions of new manhood really have not. For those who are concerned to understand, rather than merely to pathologize what they find threatening to their ideology, it is important to ask ourselves why.

A further issue in which I have long had an active interest is in the forces shaping contemporary discourse, particularly on new media, and in the ways that material factors either exacerbate or give rise to our cultural and political antagonisms and impasses. I have written and spoken on this subject very extensively. Peterson is someone who is using new media in some creative and pioneering ways, overcoming some of the problems entailed by the restrictive frameworks of old institutions and media, while potentially giving rise to new issues. This is worthy of attention, as is the way in which the environment of social media is shaping and driving the reception of and engagement with his thought.

Peterson has proved to be a highly polarizing figure. In both the reactions against him and the reactions for him, fundamental dynamics of contemporary discourse and society are exposed (I commented upon some of these in my most recent post). If we pay close attention, I believe that we could learn a great deal. For instance, we are seeing something of the gendered dynamic of the bad boys versus mean girls antagonism in current society (especially on social media) coming to the foreground (see my remarks here). We increasingly lack a true ‘public square’ as a society, but have a no man’s land in which various parties are competing for dominance, fighting not merely over which ideology or party should be dominant, but also over which mode of discourse should prevail. Peterson is one person in rebellion against the politics of deference that has grown up around women, LGBT persons, and racial minorities, seeking to restore a public square where ideas can be vigorously contested among intellectual combatants. His opposition to ideology and his close attention to non-abstract engagement with persons and reality is also noteworthy.

Finally, Peterson is a remarkably charismatic and compelling communicator, someone who moves others powerfully with his words, especially when accompanied with his striking pathos. He has a rare gift with the spoken word, but also in personal conversation and in the observation of patterns of human behaviour. These are all skills that are integral to the effective performance of the duties of Christian pastoral work. He demonstrates, for those who might have doubted, that lengthy spoken messages that have logos, pathos, and ethos remain a dynamic and powerful form of communication, with the capacity to transform lives. In a supposedly distracted age of instant gratification, nearly two million people are still prepared to listen to or watch a talk of well over two hours in length on the subject of the idea of God. Scott Alexander’s description of Peterson as a ‘prophet’—a point that relates primarily to Peterson’s capacity to communicate with a peculiar transformative power—is insightful, and is one of the reasons why Christian teachers should be paying attention.

Recognizing the importance of these things, I have written several pieces on the subject of Peterson and his appeal. My earlier pieces on Peterson principally focused on his vision for masculinity and his appeal to men. I wrote this piece about Peterson’s interview with Cathy Newman and his claim that strengthening men would be to the benefit of women too. This is a position that is very important to me, as so much of the discourse on gender issues in all quarters has pitted men and women against each other, treating men and women chiefly as competitors or opponents, rather than as loving collaborators. Our differences, I am convinced, should not be seen primarily as differences from each other, but as differences for each other. Both men and women need the space and means to thrive—something that requires recognizing our differing strengths and giving us both the space to play to them—and both sexes can benefit from the thriving and strengthening of the other sex.

I have explored, in this post and the one that followed it, how Peterson speaks effectively to young men’s shame and struggles, while the Church so often fails. The connection between gender, spirituality, and piety is an important one. As some of our deepest human instincts for meaning are profoundly coloured by gender, it should not surprise us that spiritualities often appeal to male and female followers in different ways and to differing degrees. Differences between male and female senses of meaning and spirituality are pronounced, perhaps somewhat ironically, in many modern forms of spirituality and belief that are supposed gender neutral. The New Atheist movement appealed predominantly to a particular type of young male for a reason. Likewise, Oprah appeals to a largely female audience in large part due to gender differences in our senses of meaning (see Ross Douthat’s recent opinion piece on this).

While speaking of the ‘feminization’ of the Church can invite unhelpful controversy, the differing levels of engagement between men and women in the message and practice of the Church is a striking feature of most Christian contexts. Thought about how Christian faith can faithfully engage men once again, without resorting to gimmicks, shallow spectacle, or masculine identity cults is much needed. Peterson’s ability to attract young men to potentially life-transforming truths that, while having particular resonance for men, aren’t about a male identity cult is worthy of our attention. I’ve reflected upon Peterson’s appeal to young evangelical men here. I’ve also written about some of the things that pastors could learn from Peterson more generally here.

While most encounter Peterson primarily as a voice in various social or political debates, as a writer of self-help literature, or as a powerful motivational speaker, recognizing the academic roots of his thinking and practice is valuable, especially for Christians. Such understanding can enable us to interact with his work more fruitfully, more clearly to recognize what can be taken on board, and where we need to be watchful. In my most extensive treatment of Peterson to date, I provide a lengthy sketch of his thinking. I also recently recorded a video of a conversation with Brad Littlejohn of the Davenant Institute, in which we discuss what Christians should make of Peterson and his work.

If Peterson is not to your liking or doesn’t resonate with you, that’s quite OK. We don’t all have to resonate with every person and every message. Many truths will have a peculiar salience for specific audiences, while leaving other audiences cold. I would merely advise that you do not dismiss Peterson and effect he is having on that account. If Peterson and some of his more fanatical or defensive followers are personally irritating to you, then try to ensure that any criticisms that you have arise from non-reactive and attentive reflection, rather than personal animus against people to whom you struggle to relate well. Limit your exposure to the often cult-like Peterson bandwagon, by all means—I assure you, I don’t find it hard to understand your frustration with it! Focus on the saner advocates of his viewpoints. We will all be better off foregrounding the saner voices on every side and resisting our urge to get outraged about the extremists (the same applies to Jordan Peterson fans: there is a great deal that you could learn from people that are carelessly dismissed as ‘cultural Marxists’ and ‘postmodernists’, if you were prepared to look beyond the shriller and crazier voices and to listen carefully and charitably).

If you are going to engage critically with Peterson, please keep your eyes open for the good fruit of Peterson’s work, while criticizing him and the movement around him where they genuinely need to be criticized. Peterson and his followers badly need friendly, non-reactive, and attentive critics, people who aren’t merely hostile or carelessly dismissive of them, preaching to their own choirs, but who are seeking to represent their positions accurately, to support that which is good in Peterson’s project, to expose that which is weak, and to address those areas which are misguided.

We all need people who are committed to the work of persuasion, people with an unfeigned concern for the well-being of the people attracted to Peterson’s work (in no small measure because of his unfeigned concern for them). Strawmanning and carelessly rejecting the work of someone who has made a profound difference in many people’s lives, while it may play well with your own party, is only going to lead to knee-jerk reactions against you by those who aren’t. It is easy to play the partisanship game, but if we are truly to make our society a better place, we need to start trying to win people, not merely win ideological battles against grossly caricatured opponents.

Peterson’s advice to set our own house in order first before we try to change the world is valuable and it applies to all of us in this area. We all need to learn how to think and engage calmly and non-reactively. We all need to seek out sane and reasonable people who disagree with us and to forge charitable, generous, receptive, and attentive conversations with them. If you don’t believe that such people exist, you aren’t looking very hard: there are plenty of them out there. We need to stop playing zero sum games. We all need to learn how to care much more about our neighbours who disagree with us and to consider how we could pursue a good that we could hold in common with them. While we may not care for certain of their viewpoints, it is imperative that we care for them.

Posted in Controversies, Culture, Ethics, Politics, Society | 7 Comments

The God of Exodus is on Your Side

Another video of me discussing a theme from the recently published Echoes of Exodus has just been released. See my earlier video here. There is also a video of Andrew speaking on the subject of Exodus and resurrection here:

For a further taster of the book, you can listen to a talk I give on the subject of the exodus theme here. The book is written as an accessible popular level treatment of the theme of exodus and as an introduction to typological reading of Scripture more generally. Each chapter is very short, with questions for discussion and reflection afterwards (which might be useful for Bible study groups). We sought to produce a book that would be beneficial for Christians of various levels of understanding. While I would like to write a detailed academic and technical exploration of the theme of exodus someday, this isn’t it, but is a book that should be readable for a far greater audience, while having much that should inspire even seasoned students of Scripture.

You can purchase a copy of the Echoes of Exodus book here.

Posted in Bible, Christian Experience, Exodus, My Books, NT, NT Theology, OT, OT Theology, Theological | 3 Comments

Discourse in the Culture Wars and the Hunger for Catharsis

This is just the fucking worst.

Imagine a self-help book written by the Darth Maul of tenured campus bad boys, an act of trahison des clercs so severe that it calls into question the entire five-thousand-year academic project—a book that seeks to make accessible to a general audience a mélange of mysticism, philosophy, psychology and dietary recommendations, assembled into a package so intellectually low-cal that it would be hilarious were it not basically a to-do list for a generation of tiki torch-wielding neo-Klansmen.

So begins Richard Poplak’s review of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life in The Johannesburg Review of Books. Poplak is far from alone in his excoriating take on Peterson. Houman Barekat declares Peterson to be a ‘a prancing messiah-cum-surrogate-dad for gormless dimwits everywhere’ in the LA Review of Books, concluding his review with the paragraph:

Admittedly it’s not always easy to distinguish between a harmless retro eccentric and a peddler of poisonous and potentially murderous ideas. So let’s take stock: Masculinist persecution myth? Check. Repeated appeals to Darwinism to justify social hierarchies? Check. A left-wing conspiracy to take over the culture? Check. Romanticization of suffering? Check. Neurotic angst about “chaos”? Check. Like many of his sort, Peterson sees himself as a defender of the best traditions of Western civilization and the Enlightenment. But there is an old adage: if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, chances are it’s a duck.

Tabatha Southey claims that Peterson is ‘the stupid man’s smart person.’ ‘He’s full of shit,’ Harrison Fluss maintains. In Nathan Robinson’s estimation, ‘Jordan Peterson is an intellectual fraud who uses a lot of words to say almost nothing.’ Many other such reviews could be referenced.

The responses to Peterson’s work have been alarming. This isn’t because of the existence of strong disagreement with him: vigorous disagreement with a thinker as vocal and eccentric as Peterson is only to be expected and is also necessary for stress-testing his ideas, many of which are weak and in need of correction or rejection. Rather, it is because of the character of it. So many of Peterson’s critics have been so wild in the swings and misses of their criticisms, have betrayed so remarkable a degree of venom in their writing, have so consistently resorted to ad hominems, have dismissed rather than sought to persuade those attracted to him, and have shown a great eagerness to discredit Peterson entirely and exorcize him from respectable discourse. These hostile reviews have unsurprisingly been spread with immense glee on social media.

When journals of literary review publish pieces as foaming with vitriol as Poplak or Barekat’s, there is good reason to question where the reaction is coming from. It is rare enough for a review to begin with ‘This is just the fucking worst.’ It is even rarer to read such a review of a book that has received high praise from a great many thoughtful, intelligent, and moderate people. Someone like Scott Alexander is not the sort of person one would expect to be receptive to a crypto-Nazi agenda. Something doesn’t compute. Likewise, one wouldn’t expect a person without any academic credibility—a mere ‘stupid man’s smart person’—to have held a teaching position at Harvard and currently to occupy a professorate at a university ranked in the top twenty in the world in his field.

The possibility that Peterson is merely wrong on some things doesn’t seem to be entertained. He must be radically pathologized, dismissed as someone without any academic credibility, characterized as evil and hateful, and his message treated as worse than utterly worthless. Yet a few years back, through the very same left-wing sites that are now sharing these hostile takedowns, I encountered various appreciative links to Peterson’s work (like this one on Metafilter), before he ever became a prominent public figure. However, as soon as Peterson started publicly challenging certain sacred cows of the progressive left, he was declared to be an evil and worthless figure, frequently by people who manifestly lack a basic level of comprehension of his project.

I find this a depressing indication of the current state of discourse. And Peterson himself is far from being without fault here. His own characterizations of ‘cultural Marxism’ are quite distorted and tendentious, even if they are not altogether without a genuine referent. He has been quite uncharitable in many of his attacks upon opposing viewpoints and has not done much to dispel a culture war mentality, especially in his engagements on Twitter.

There has been a rapid hardening of prejudices, a closing off from others, and a recoiling from anything tainted by association with our opponents. The sort of histrionics and hysterics that we are seeing from many on the left in responding to Jordan Peterson is merely one expression of a problem that is afflicting us all. When the register of a journal of literary review precipitously plummets to the inclusion of an f-bomb in a single-sentence opening paragraph, one is witnessing the rapid collapse of discourse into reactivity.

The highly emotive language of many of these reviews and the wide and gleeful sharing of them are further manifestations of our reactivity in the current environment. People are so caught up in the fraught interpersonal ideological tensions of our discursive climate that they are increasingly searching for catharsis over analysis. They desire things that will relieve the psychological tensions that they feel so keenly. Consequently, they produce or pounce upon anything that will enable them to drive out, at least in rhetorical effigy, the persons or parties by whom they feel threatened. There is something in their system and they need to purge it out.

I see a great deal of this on Twitter and have also been mindful of the unruly passions that are excited in me in that context. So many of the people I see, from a range of different backgrounds, are on edge, tense, or like cornered animals on Twitter. They appear to feel themselves to be operating in a sort of war mode, even though they often hate it. They probably desire peace, but believe that is to be found through driving out the other side, whatever that side might be. All of their pent-up tension cries out for catharsis, which is pursued through rhetorical attacks upon opponents, lots of sarcasm, mockery, and dismissive humour, communal outrage, and other such means.

I am persuaded that Twitter and social media more generally are themselves a key dimension of our problem here. Social media produces a situation of undifferentiation, where we are all too close to each other, a situation ripe for the sort of ‘mimetic crises’ René Girard discussed. Scott Alexander remarks upon the dynamics of tribalism, observing that ‘outgroups’ are created by ‘proximity plus small differences.’ One of the problems with social media is that it radically increases our proximity to each other, and our sense of being threatened by each other and the differences that we have from each other: social media intensifies our exposure to outgroups. The result is a ratcheting up of all our tensions and an increasing preoccupation with fighting against other people. As our awareness of and exposure to the outgroup increases, we will grow increasingly reactive and incapable of reasonable discourse. As I’ve pointed out in the past, the supposed ‘echo chambers’ that people complain about are the result, not of less exposure to opposing viewpoints, but of more: they are what result from our reaction against the felt proximity of opposing viewpoints. And the polarizing effect is one that is occurring on all sides.

As a critical mass of society is now psychologically operating on a war footing in many of their online interactions, the war isn’t merely a perception, but is increasingly a reality that is being fuelled by that perception. The growing insanity of both the left and the right is produced and exacerbated by this, each side feeding off the increased craziness and aggressiveness of the other. What was once a cultural struggle with clearly determined fronts has become a vast cultural civil war, which has exceeded all bounds and is rushing into every dimension of our lives.

As all of this relates to Jordan Peterson, this is profoundly regrettable. Peterson is an immensely charismatic individual and, as such, is in danger of producing a cult-like movement if there are not reasonable and charitable critics to engage with him and his ideas. And when one reads various of the left-wing criticisms of Peterson, one can generally see some genuine criticisms present within the extensive quantity of dross. Unfortunately, due to our climate of discourse, these valid criticisms will merely harden Peterson’s critics in their prejudices and inattentiveness to Peterson and will not seriously be considered by any but the most unreactive of Peterson’s followers. Rather than receptive and illuminating conversation, we all merely become more bigoted.

A point I’ve repeatedly returned to over the last few years is that we don’t face the world as detached thinkers, but as engaged moral selves. As such, we must regulate our emotional and structural relation to reality in its wholeness and particularity if we are to think about it clearly and effectively. This requires approaching thinking as something that is founded in virtues and well-ordered practices and societies, rather than merely in brain power. We need patience, self-control, forgiveness and forgiven-ness, graciousness, courage, trust, hope, faith to overcome fear and anxiety, humility, etc., etc. We also must recognize the ways in which our thinking is embedded in environments, structures, and practices, which can be dysfunctional and require closer self-regulation and structural reformation, if we are to function well within them. Thinking becomes a far more challenging activity, requiring deep engagement with and attention to problems in our hearts and our relations, mindful navigation of our institutions and media, and constructive and reconstructive engagement.

If our relationship to opposing ideological viewpoints is so charged with interpersonal and social tensions, we will find it almost impossible to think well about those issues. Rather than responsibly pursuing understanding, we will be seeking catharsis. ‘Responsibility’ denotes the possession of the capacity to respond, rather than just instinctively react—a surprisingly rare virtue! Without it, we will always be searching in some measure for a way to vent our spleen or to drive the threatening viewpoint away from us, instead of engaging with it carefully, charitably, and attentively.

Healthy engagement requires careful management and channelling of our emotions, ensuring that we are not driven by dysfunctional reactivity, but that we have the sort of well-ordered loves, selves, and societies that enable us to respond, rather than merely react. What this looks like will vary for different people. For most people, it probably requires radically paring down social media presence and activity. It almost certainly requires practicing solitude, or at least significantly cutting down on the intensity of one’s social exposure, spending more time in obscurer social contexts. For all of us, it requires the practice of those disciplines that will cultivate strong and virtuous character in us, so that we will be less at the mercy of our environments.

I return to these issues with some frequency, mostly because I am convinced that, unless we take them seriously and address the root problems as a matter of urgency, enmity and contempt will become a settled and stubborn feature of our cultural life.

Posted in Culture, Ethics, On the web, Society | 98 Comments

What Should Christians Think About Jordan Peterson?

The full video of my conversation with Brad Littlejohn of the Davenant Institute on Jordan Peterson is available here. Brad is a close friend and a great conversation partner: it was fun to record a couple of our conversations for a wider audience.

See our earlier conversation about social media here.

Posted in Apologetics, Christian Experience, Culture, My Reading, Philosophy, Society, Theological, Video | 10 Comments