Twelve Rules for Life – Or Death?

In my last post I cited Walker Percy’s observation that this modern age is one of “theory and consumption.”     That means, according to Brian A. Smith in his commentary on Percy, that:

Americans are a sad people, and we commonly approach our sadness with the goal of eradicating it, rather than understanding it as a clue to what we’re doing wrong in our lives. Instead, what we do is seek wisdom from experts, whose theories of life and self-help we place our hope, and we try to escape through our wealth.

Percy sees that the theories and answers the experts offer are not enough and in fact only exacerbate the problems.   Smith writes that Percy “thought the experts we take refuge in were flawed because they tend to hold up partial pictures of human life and use them as a comprehensive way of ordering existence.”  With all of that in mind, let us consider this new book by Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos

The title even suggests self-help.  The whole idea of rules suggests our own ability to keep them and thereby keep out of, or pull ourselves out of, the chaos of existence.  So, is this just one more version of the same old thing?  One more guru to offer us theories we can go by and improve our lives?

Peterson may be distinguished from many other writers for several reasons.   He is not merely an academic theoretician; besides being a professor at the University of Toronto, he is a practicing clinical psychologist.  He has seen years and years’ worth of the application of various theories and has witnessed the results as they have played out in the lives of his patients.  Moreover, he is steeped in philosophy.  Not new-age philosophy, but rather the great philosophical traditions of the west.  He is no stranger to religion, either.  He is familiar with the Bible and the sacred writings of other world religions.  Indeed, his one earlier book, Maps of Meaning, is an exploration of the stories told in the great religious traditions of the world.

But is this book a book about faith or is it self-help?  To use the distinction employed in the New Testament, are we here talking about law or gospel?  Are we talking in terms of human beings being able to save themselves through wisdom and discipline or are we talking about surrender to God and dependence on Him?

Do you know Andrew Wilson?  If not, you should dig around on the internet until you get a good dose of him.  He’s one of those rare personalities that is unpredictable – in a good way.  He is a preacher at a Pentecostal-type church in Eastborne, UK.  And, yes, that does mean speaking in tongues, but he is also a true intellectual: Cambridge educated and a PhD from King’s College in London, he is a prolific writer, having authored several books.  He blogs constantly, giving the world his take on, well, just about everything, but in large part on the books he has read.  Not long ago he posted a list of the best books he had read in 2017 and I had trouble just wading through the list.

Wilson, who is anything but a self-help guru, has lavish praise for Peterson’s new book.  He encourages Peterson to:

Write more books. Your analysis is sharp and your prose readable, in some places beautiful (the Coda in particular). Your stances are courageous, contrarian and often counterintuitive. I love the way you weave together the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of the word, and apply them to areas of life—parenting, work, friendship—where they are often absent in contemporary culture. You have helped a lot of people, and I’m sure you will continue to. Thank you.

But in the same review, Wilson warns Peterson:

If you give people law without gospel, they will die. Slowly, perhaps; with better manners and nicer children, very likely; but die they will, all the same. Give them the promise of a law fulfilled, a resurrection hope, a loving Father, a crucified Saviour, an empowering Spirit. Give them life.

More to come . . .



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