By Matt Boulter
In a Covenant piece I wrote in 2018, I claimed that readers of this website should pay attention to Jordan Peterson because, among other reasons, he reminds us that “modern and contemporary ideologies, religious and secular, are in reality agenda-driven power plays that, like a parasite, feed and live off the ‘borrowed capital’ of the great, primordial religions of humanity.”
Three years later, this statement still holds up. More than that, in fact: in his recent gravitation toward full-orbed Christianity — appearing actually to confess faith in Christ — Peterson has extended his criticism of secular discourse to the Sunday pulpit:
When I go to church… do I feel that I’m being led along an investigation into the structure of deep meaning? … Not usually. I usually feel that I’m being told what to think, or told what to believe… and that doesn’t seem to work.
What is this statement advocating for? Is it a plea for the celebrated indeterminacy of much contemporary mainline preaching which amounts to little more than a refusal to commit, the avoidance of determinacy?
I think not, but never mind what I think; it turns out that I’m in agreement with none other than Bishop Robert Barron, Catholic prelate and online evangelist. In the same video conversation, Barron jumps in, in response to Peterson’s statement above:
But the church fathers preached in exactly the way you’re describing. And we luckily have some of these sermons, like of Augustine, that he gave… off the cuff…. [Y]ou get a sense of someone who’s doing what you’re saying I think: thinking through with the text as he goes, he was theologizing, philosophizing, but he was trying to draw his people. He was a pastor… he wasn’t an academic professor of theology at university. He was a pastor trying to draw people closer to God and he learned the method… from Ambrose. When he goes to Ambrose in Milan he’s a Manichee, he’s not even a Christian, but he heard that Ambrose was a great rhetorician, so he went to hear his rhetoric and while he was there he learned the method of reading the Bible which is this more allegorical, spiritual method. That’s what Jung appreciated, that’s what you’re doing in many ways. The young Augustine learned it from Ambrose and then he bequeathed that to us in his sermons…
This is exactly right. What Peterson (relying mainly on instinct) as well as Barron are advocating for is a kind of injection into preaching (and every other dimension of church life) of beauty.
What makes preaching interesting?
What, for that matter, makes anything interesting? The series title page of one of my favorite book series (Kalos, by Wipf and Stock Publishers) says this: “The word kalos means beautiful. It is the call of the good; that which arouses our interest, desire: ‘I am here.’”
I’m not a “card-carrying” Jordan Peterson fan. (For example, I think that Slavoj Zizek upped him in this debate.) Yet anyone who’s seen his video lectures on “the psychological significance of the biblical stories” (near the beginning of which he says, “I’m approaching this whole scenario, these biblical stories, as if they are a mystery, fundamentally”) will readily admit that Peterson is a master at stoking one’s desire for beauty.
This secular mystagogical preacher delights in stoking his audience’s longing, its desire, for beauty. His musings on Genesis might not be completely orthodox, but what they lack in conformity to the sacred deposit they make up for in spades in terms of interest.
In our post-Christendom context, when more Americans are interested in exploring Buddhism or various forms of paganism than they are in exploring the Christian faith, surely this approach to preaching — a sort of postmodern mystagogy that strives to pique people’s interest and draw them into the faith, into the biblical story — is exactly what is needed. Whether this conforms precisely to pedagogical standards and values in the last few decades and even centuries of seminaries — both “conservative” and “liberal” — is beside the point.
The ancients knew that the allure of the beautiful captivates our attention. Allow me now, in closing, to call your attention to a specific verb that Barron uses twice in his discourse, quoted above: the verb “draw.” (Peterson’s language of “being led” is quite resonant and similar.)
I’m referring to the term “educate,” or “education.” Originally something like “exducatio” — Latin dislikes consonants between certain other letters, and so dropped the “x” in the prefix — the root word here, duco, originally meant something like “to draw”: to draw a fluid, such as water, through some vessel such as a Roman aqueduct. The basic idea here is that the real task, the true vocation, of the authentic teacher or educator, is not to pump information into the student/hearer/audience, but to draw it out of them.
This is what I hear Barron and Peterson gesturing toward and alluding to. I completely agree, and endorse their incipient manifesto. The role of the preacher is to woo, to seduce, to lead, the people into the mystery and the beauty of Christ. In this sense it is mystagogical (gogé being the root word for “leading” in Greek) and evangelistic all at the same time.
Mystagogical and evangelical? Prior to the current level of erosion we are seeing in Christendom, I would have bristled and resisted this juxtaposition. Surely evangelism is intended for the “world,” while preaching is for the baptized, the faithful, those who already belong. Those instincts were not wrong. And yet, after two decades of regular duty in the pulpit together with the current state of our culture — who can deny that the lines of demarcation between the baptized and the secular are beyond blurred? — I’ve had to reconsider.
Turns out I’m in good company. Who agrees with me (and Professor Peterson and Bishop Barron)? None other than the African bishop himself, St. Augustine, he who preached faithfully and powerfully amid the crumbling walls of the established empire, even as the barbarians entered more and more into the mainstream.