I’ve spent a good portion of my online career bashing Jordan Peterson. I’ve often found him clownish and, at times, downright dangerous.
His new book Beyond Order, however, surprised me. The Peterson that emerged from its pages was a far more complicated and interesting figure than I had previously given him credit for. He lives with brutal addiction and depression, and yet doles out advice on how to lead a good life. He’s weird, eccentric, verbose, and surprisingly progressive and conservative at different turns. I found parts of his book genuinely helpful, and other parts frustrating and overly esoteric. None of this is to say that I’m a fan or that I agree with him on everything. It’s simply to say that I found his most recent book worth engaging.
I’ve been making noise on social media lately about how I deliberately read problematic books. By problematic, I mean that they are deemed, justly or unjustly, toxic or bad by people I usually agree with. I’ve noticed some palpable discomfort when I bring up the topic, so I thought I would take some time to explore why I think reading problematic literature is helpful.
I’m a slow reader, and at the end of each year I find myself mildly disappointed by my low book count. However, this was the year of COVID-19, political unrest, and existential uncertainty. All my previous forms of entertainment (news, social media, shows, gaming) became too stimulating in an already over-stressed existence. I retreated to books, and they sustained me through this dumpster fire of a year.
I’ve reduced my time on social media, and I’ve been experiencing some profound side effects of this detox: I’m more willing to engage people I would have previously dismissed, and my knee-jerk disgust response is down. This means that I am now engaging a great many more thinkers and writers who I would have previously dismissed as gross and/or anti-woke.
I recently picked up The Madness of Crowds by Douglas Murray, which attempts to argue how worthy minority and progressive causes have ripened into full blown mania and societal insanity. He sums this up with his description of “St George in Retirement Syndrome.”
Like everyone else during this plague, I’ve been struggling to find ways to survive and stay sane. I’m an essential worker, and life has been somewhat fraught with existential dread. Some days, I feel good – balanced, mostly happy, and relatively centered. Other days, the existential despair crushes me. I don’t know how we will get out of this, how we will create a better world, how we will survive intact.
Many of the previous avenues of leisure are closed to me, now. Podcasts are often too stressful. Youtube is too stressful. Social media is too stressful. I’m already maxed out trying to stay safe and responsible at the front lines of the food industry. My brain just doesn’t have as much capacity as it used to.
The only place I can go, then, are books, primarily sci-fi and fantasy. I’ve devoured a huge number of books since the beginning of the pandemic, as books feel like the only safe place I have left.
In The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, Eastern Orthodox Theologian David Bentley Hart writes that he believes true atheism must be “nurtured by an infantile wish to live in a world proportionate to one’s own hopes or conceptual limitations.”
David Bentley Hart’s ponderous tome The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss has been regularly touted to me as the book every nontheist must read. I’m happy to oblige, and I’m about 30% of the way through (including footnotes.) While I find Hart pompous, bloviating, and even an occasional bully, I’m also enjoying his erudition and mastery of the English language. As he makes clear again and again, he is not so much trying to defend God, but rather to describe the classical view of God, which he feels modern atheists have sorely missed.
I’m the middle of a fascinating book called Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds. Author Joseph Laycock explores, with great detail and insight, the parallel worlds of role-playing games and religion. For three decades, role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons were at the center of a moral panic involving everything from fears of cults, satanists, to a lost generation of super predators. His thesis is that role-playing games were threatening to the religious right because, if communities could create such intricate, imagined, and meaning-making worlds through games, does that mean that religion itself is a sort of game? But beneath this initial thesis lie some profound insights for people like me who still greatly value religion, even as I doubt the existence of a personal God.
I found his book heartfelt, beautiful, and compassionate. I am always moved when someone like Michael Coren – someone who represents the conservative Christian vangaurd – publically switches views and risks disgrace from his own camp. I reached out to Michael to discuss his book, his thoughts on the church and the LGBT issue, and (as he describes it delightfully in his book) his “conversion on the road to the rainbow.”