Jordan Peterson, an Uber driver, and a ex-atheist walk into a 14,000-seat arena

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I waited in line alongside a woman with a cane wearing a cross necklace and a group of teenage boys in board shorts. A blind man was led along by two other gentlemen past a well-dressed lady in petite black heels and her suit-wearing date. A toddler held her daddy’s hands as we entered into the arena and were met with the overwhelming smell of funnel cake.

The Dickies Arena in Fort Worth can hold up to 14,000 people. As I took my seat, bright screens in every direction advertised the upcoming entertainment: Disney On Ice, Dierks Bentley, Justin Timberlake.

“So what brings you to the Jordan Peterson tour?” I asked the man next to me over the sound of classical music mingled with popcorn-munching that flowed through the air.

If only I could only go back to my college theory courses, raise my scared little hand, and say, “That’s really fascinating that Nietzsche said ‘God is dead,’ but how does that hold up in the face of the Genesis account?”

“I got some things I want to wrestle with God about,” he said and gestured to the projection of the tour’s title on the front screen: We Who Wrestle with God Tour.

“And the best part is,” he told me,“I ‘cash flowed’ the whole thing. No credit card.”

He was an Uber driver who had worked extra hours to afford this night out because he thought, “I ought to do something for myself.”He’d found Jordan Peterson’s videos online and realized that “a lot of what he was talking about is the way I was raised.”

A live musician took the stage. As he plucked the first notes on his guitar, my new friend next to me leaned over to my husband to say that he got off early and went to Buc-ee’s before this.

“This and Buc-ee’s makes for the perfect day.”

His easygoing demeanor and untucked polo shirt defied the typical nose-in-the-classics intellectual stereotype you might expect at an academic lecture. He had not brought his pocket “Poetics,” nor did he try to assert his own intelligence with a nonchalant reference to one of Dostoevsky’s lesser-known works. He never said “penultimate,” “epistemological,” or “a priori.” Instead, he sipped his Diet Coke and tapped his foot along to the music

As more and more people filled the arena, my husband leaned over to me and whispered, “We are all here to hear a man ponder.” We laughed at the idea. In a few months, Justin Timberlake would pack this same arena and bring the ladies to their knees with another rendition of “SexyBack.” But tonight, we were gathered to listen to a lecture about God from a Canadian psychologist.

Jordan Peterson took the stage with the charisma of a soft-spoken elder trying to make a crucial decision for his tribe. His hands were pressed in front of his lips as he paced, speaking extemporaneously and pausing to think for a length of time that would make any professional speaker blush.

The question at hand for the night’s lecture was, in essence, “Why God?”

As Peterson mused aloud over women’s attraction to men who can dance (a tangent well worth exploring, in my opinion) I had to ask myself, “Why are we all here?”

What was it about this 61-year-old clinical psychologist and what he calls “the theater of thought” that had drawn Texans out in droves on a Monday night?

Peterson’s reputation is as a self-help guru. Even if his 90-minute presentation lacked the dramatic turns, the flashing lights, or the dopamine-releasing rituals that accompany most motivational speakers.

Is that why we were there?

Is that why I was there?

Self-help?

I thought about what the Uber driver had said: “I got some things I want to wrestle with God about.”

Sure. But metaphorically speaking, right? This isn’t really about “God.”

Wrong, Mikayla. Wrong.

I had helped my “self” quite enough, actually. I’d taken the latest personality tests, adopted some “Atomic Habits,” gave up sugar, and tried cold showers. I worked out every day, did calming breathing exercises, and kept a tightly organized personal planner. But there are some things even a good Pilates session and the “power of positive thinking” can’t fix.

I wasn’t there for self-help. I was there for God-help.

Like the man sitting next to me, we weren’t there for the high-falutin’ thrill of mental gymnastics. We were there because we had some sh** to work out.

The online portal to submit a question for Jordan featured a way to “upvote” different comments to push them to the top of the feed. Here are some of the questions people were asking:

“What is the meaning of life and why should I care?

“What is the most important verse in the Bible to live by?”

“Was Jesus everything he claimed to be, per what we read in the Gospels?”

“Is there any way to have an absolute moral structure apart from religion?’”

‘’’How do you forgive what seems like an unforgivable act?”

One audience member wrote, “I struggle with my sexuality. I don’t want this life for me. I’m a devoted, conservative-leaning Christian, I don’t know what to do. What are your opinions?”

He was there, like me, like the Uber driver to my right, to wrestle with God.

Then there was the man to my left — my husband.

It wasn’t that long ago that he was a teenager disillusioned by the church and drawn to New Atheist leaders like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. For many curious young people, New Atheism was the satisfyingly rebellious answer to religion’s seeming inability to address the hard questions.

Those same seekers, after some time and deeper thought, also found the proposal of a godless world to be unreasonable and hollow.

What was a disillusioned atheist to do next?

Enter Dr. Jordan Peterson, a man who has never publicly confessed adherence to any particular faith and yet travels the world teaching about Abraham and Moses to packed stadiums as if he’s Billy Graham.

Why?

As he said in the lecture that night,“We’ve come to a time when we have to understand what the stories our culture is predicated on actually mean.” In his opinion, the Bible is that story, and with it, we’ve created “arguably the greatest culture on earth. … If you want to keep the culture, keep the story. If you want to keep the story, you have to keep God.”

As I shuffled out of the arena with my chocolate-chip cookie wrapper, I heard a man behind me offer the pointed observation that Jordan, a somewhat religiously ambiguous man who had paced the stage in a suit jacket patterned with the faces of saints, “is more Christian than most Christians.”

I thought about my husband again and the hours of conversations we’d had as he’d listened to Jordan Peterson’s lecture series on the book of Genesis.

We had talked about Cain and Abel and the nature of evil, the power of words to speak life into existence, and the idea that men are created in the image of God. They were the conversations I’d been desperate to have since we’d met in college but never knew how to start.

I suppose that’s one of the reasons I love Peterson, because he gave me the gift of those conversations — and not only with my husband, but with people everywhere.

Even if Peterson hadn’t claimed to take the Bible literally, he’d taken it seriously. He’d pursued the ancient writings with the vigor that the intellectual class typically reserved for Darwin and Freud. For me, his influence shattered the false separation of intellect and faith.

If only I could only go back to my college theory courses, raise my scared little hand, and say, “That’s really fascinating that Nietzsche said ‘God is dead,’ but how does that hold up in the face of the Genesis account?”

With the wind of Peterson’s high-level biblical analysis at my back, I would tell every professor that I would be bringing both my God and my reason into class, thank you very much.

But there was no Jordan Peterson when I waded the godless waters of academia, not yet.

Today there are “Jordan Petersons” popping up everywhere. They’re blowing the dust off their old Bibles and saying, “Hey, before we throw all our norms and ethics down the memory hole, why don’t we give this God guy a shot?” Honestly, what do we have to lose? Or, even more honestly, do we have any other options?

If we had other options, would we still have men like Jordan Peterson? Or are men like him only forged in times like these?

My husband and I had parked at a church down the street. As he opened the car door to let me in, I noticed the stream of fellow audience members passing under the steeple. The modest silver cross was only barely visible by the dim glow of streetlights.

We drove home talking about God.

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