The Illumination of Jordan Peterson’s Pen of Light

“Rules? More Rules? Really?”

Blake Nail / 11.24.20

Since quarantine began I have finally had the time to peruse the bookshelf where unnecessary Amazon orders have found their place to reside for quite some time. When Jordan Peterson was the talk of the World Wide Web, I ordered his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Now three years later, the buzz has subsided, but Peterson’s star hasn’t faded with time. Peterson has found himself in headlines for numerous things over the past couple years. He’s built a reputation for his stances against what some would call “social justice warriors,” his witty arguments, and for his ability to explain things specifically with carefully selected language. While a divisive figure, I jumped into his somewhat self-help book to see if there was anything I could possibly glean from his experience.

In the first words of the foreword, Dr. Norman Doidge acknowledges the oppressive nature of living under the law:

Rules? More rules? Really? Isn’t life complicated enough, restricting enough, without abstract rules that don’t take our unique, individual situations into account? And given that our brains are plastic, and all develop differently based on our life experiences, why even expect that few rules might be helpful to us all?

By the end of the book, Peterson’s view of laws seems to have changed. He even suggests the law is where we find our meaning:

But if it’s uncertain that our ideals are attainable, why do we bother reaching in the first place? Because if you don’t reach for them, it is certain you will never feel that your life has meaning. And perhaps because, as unfamiliar and strange as it sounds, in the deepest part of our psyche, we all want to be judged.

Peterson’s work points out humanity’s desire to measure ourselves against the law. For him, this desire doesn’t reveal our need for the work of Jesus but rather our need to be judged — to see where we need to improve and step up our game. We find our meaning in this, in attempting to make ourselves better. If we can only stop thinking those terrible things about our mother. If we can only stop being so selfish and help our children with their algebra instead of scrolling through our feeds. If we can only stop using the shovel of our mouth and digging into our spouse. We can be better and we will be better, we tell ourselves.

Peterson sees this ailment of humanity and even views the Bible as an attempt at addressing it. Throughout his book he uses early Genesis stories to help paint a picture not of the Gospel but of archetypal stories of the human desire to be better. Adam and Eve are a dysfunctional couple who learn how the world works, Cain and Abel are brothers who learn about the hard truth of sacrifice, and Noah a man who learns about hard work. If these sound like anachronistic readings, you’d be right. For Peterson, these stories say nothing about God, but teach us how to live our lives together. And he uses them as bridges to do so.

Throughout the book are rules about making friends along your journey in life, setting your house in order before you try to fix others, being precise with your speech and even petting cats in the street as a method for enjoying the little things in life. These are helpful, no doubt. This isn’t a criticism of the book per se. I especially enjoyed his commentary on how we compare ourselves to others instead of earlier versions of ourselves. His wisdom on raising children and pursing meaningful tasks in life in order to gain internal happiness were beneficial to me. And I must say, I even pet my cat a little more after reading this book.

But the biggest thing that left my stomach uneasy after finishing Peterson’s work was the solution for when we fail at these steps to life. What happens when the antidote doesn’t work? What happens when the chaos continues? Even when we’ve done everything we can to ensure it won’t. Peterson himself has found himself in chaos after the publication of the book. He found himself in the battle that so many have, addiction to anti-anxiety medication after finding out about his wife’s cancer diagnosis. A tumultuous finding, I can only imagine would lead to chaos for anyone, and I hope the best for his family. (As of recent news, he has returned home and says he is healthier.)

When we find ourselves relying on rules to fix everything in our lives, we are knocking at the door but missing the key. Peterson addresses Adam and Eve leaving the garden of Eden:

And then He [God] puts cherubim and a flaming sword at the gate of Eden, just to stop them from eating the Fruit of the Tree of Life. That, in particular, appears rather mean-spirited. Why not just make the poor humans immortal, right away? Particularly if that is your plan for the ultimate future, anyway, as the story goes? But who would dare to question God?

What’s missing here is the bit of good news that Christians have celebrated for centuries. It seems that Peterson has missed the chunk of the story where God himself rights the wrong nature of humanity as he steps into human flesh. Forever immortalizing humanity in perfect relationship with Him instead of in a broken one. It might be that Adam and Eve aren’t just a dysfunctional couple but rather those who were a shadow of forgiveness through the covering of sacrificial death via animal skins. Cain and Abel aren’t just brothers who learned about sacrifice, but instead pointed to a greater blood spilled. And Noah didn’t just learn about hard work but actually found a place to be tucked away and safe when a torrent of judgment came rushing in.

In his conclusion, Peterson mentions a pen that lights up the page as he writes, enabling him to write in the dark. He uses this image of the pen as a closing argument to his readers to use the rules he’s provided as the light to guide them to write their own story. The last page ends with the ever so weighty question: “What will you write with your pen of light?” But there is perhaps better news. Our human rules and God’s law are most definitely a revealing light but one that doesn’t light up a blank page for us to write on. We would only then ruin the page with our handwriting.

Rather, our pen of light is one that illuminates a page already written on. One that reveals the true word already spoken about us. That the point of life is not to become a better version of yourself through a few pieces of well-placed advice. That self-mastery is an illusion. That, although chaos may surround us and will continue to in life, peace is received rather than earned. Even when we do our best and our life is derailed by (inevitable) failures, the mind of God is never swayed. There is grace in abundance awaiting us on the other side of all our rules. God does not write with light, but blood, and his words endure forever.