A Review of 'Logos & Literacy' from Jordan Peterson
Recently Jordan Peterson put out a new documentary called “Logos and Literacy” where he went to the museum of the Bible in Washington DC and talked with some of the scholars there. The documentary was really well done, and for this article, I want to highlight some of the points covered in the documentary, and at the end I’ll tell you the one part of the documentary that could actually undermine the entire message of the film if Peterson means what I think he means in it.
One of the biggest points of the entire documentary was how literacy has been preserved in the Christian and Jewish traditions. Unlike other religions, God’s people have always believed in the accessibility and comprehensibility of truth for all people, not just a special elite class at the top of the social hierarchy. In fact, much of the energy behind the Protestant Reformation was the feeling on the part of the reformers that the church had become elitist and that the Bible needed to be put back in the hands of the common people.
Another thing that they mentioned in the documentary that I really appreciate as someone who has lived in a Buddhist country for the last 7 years, was the difference in histories between the East and the West. China and Korea had also developed their own printing presses, but even though the religious writings became accessible to people, most people weren’t interested in actually reading, because their own religions taught them that true knowledge is attained through emptying the mind, not filling it with truth. I couldn’t help but laugh when I thought about this, but it’s actually not that much more ridiculous than what we do with books today, since many of us just use them as decorations and never even read them.
The other major theme in this film was about how the religious presuppositions regarding knowledge were what led to the scientific revolution. They point to several people, like Isaac Newton for example, who were examples of both trailblazers in the field of science, as well as dedicated Christians who studied not just science, but also the Bible and theology.
I found it really interesting that they contrasted Aristotle's view of the primacy of human logic with Galileo’s understanding that the world was made by God, but that we as humans need to go out and test things in order to understand how God designed them to work. It’s not a coincidence that the scientific revolution happened in the West and happened right on the heels of the Reformation.
A third theme that wasn’t mentioned as much, but was talked about at both the beginning and the end, was that of the need for man to live within a story. Peterson has realized that, contrary to the claims of popular subjective modern philosophies that attempt to find meaning within oneself, humans need a unifying meta-narrative in order to make sense of themselves and the world. And the Bible provides exactly that.
But this is where I see the possible fatal flaw in Peterson’s thinking, if he means what I think he means at the end of the video. He starts the conclusion by saying that there is an “emerging consensus” among scholars that we have to view the world through a story. This is an interesting point, and I don’t mean to presume to know what his motivation in saying this was, but if I was interviewing him, I would ask him if he is making this point as a way of celebrating the fact that scholarship is catching up to what is objectively true, or if he is saying that it is more likely the case that it’s true BECAUSE scholars are coming to a consensus on it. Now understand, I am not against scholars, but scholarship, just like any other human enterprise can be corrupted and often is. People have biases, play political games, and water down truth for monetary gain. I’m not trying to be pessimistic, but that is a fact of human nature. So it’s important that we don’t commit the “appeal to authority fallacy” which is defined as “the logical fallacy of saying a claim is true simply because an authority figure made it.” So again, I don’t know if that is what Peterson means to communicate here, but we need to always be careful that we aren’t outsourcing our thinking to others just because they have more degrees than us.
Peterson ends with this statement: "To the degree that the Bible is reflective of our psyche and to the degree that our psyche is an evolved apparatus that suits the structure of the cosmos, the stories that reflect the manner in which we apprehend reality properly are also, in all probability, deeply reflective of the structure of experience of existence itself."
Again, to be fair, I think there are multiple ways this sentence could be interpreted and if I was interviewing Peterson, I would want to ask him to explain in more detail what exactly he means. But one thing that he could possibly mean is that the Bible is less of a historical record, and more of a noble myth that teaches us important lessons about life and records the way humans think about God.
Peterson has been known to talk about the Bible this way, so it wouldn’t be a huge stretch to imagine that that’s what he means here. And if that is the case, then there is a whole other conversation that we need to have about the truthfulness of the Bible, because since the Bible treats itself as a historical book, to say that it is an important book, but that it is not a true book, is to dance on the line between the inspirational and the absurd.