That Hideous Strength (book review)

No, not the third in the CS Lewis Sci-Fi Trilogy, although the title is drawn from that book. This is Melvin Tinker’s analysis of the cultural dangers that the church and indeed Western society more broadly are facing today.

Unsurprisingly, the primary cultural dangers identified by Tinker are the post-modern approach to tolerance that blurs the distinction between right and wrong and makes truth subjective,[1] political correctness[2] and the sexual revolution’s climax with an attack on gender.[3]

The original edition has been expanded to include a postscript responding to the Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd. This feels rather a little rushed but Tinker primarily sees #BLM as part of the danger focusing not so much on the wider movement but on the organisation that carries the name and its overtly Marxist agenda. As I’ve noted on Faithroots a number of times there has been a serious misunderstanding of the “Take The Knee” agenda and this misunderstanding turns up in Tinker’s work where missing the point that it has been Black American Footballers who have taken the knee and therefore black people who have asked others to kneel in solidarity with them, sees

“white men and women on their knees before people of colour begging for forgiveness.”[4]

Tinker, who has been rightly outspoken in his criticism of the conspiracy of silence about abuse within Reformed Evangelicalism on the basis that rotten apples do grow on trees is quick to insist when it comes to racism and police malpractice towards people of colour that we should be able to ask:

“Why can’t this policeman not simply be one ‘bad apple’ who in due course will get his just deserts?”[5]

Now at this stage I would suggest that Tinker’s critique is fairly standard. I am of course frustrated at the shallow engagement with the problems of structural racism. I would hope that someone who seems to grasp that we cannot simply dismiss Driscoll, Timmis, Smyth and Fletcher as a few rotten apples would get this. However, in that respect he is expressing a view heard from many of my brothers and sisters.  This is a conversation we need to work harder at in order to ensure that issues in terms of ethnic pride and racial discrimination are properly evaluated in the light of scripture in terms of sin and idolatry rather than as politically tribal issues.

The problems of post truth pluralism, political correctness and the Gender and Sexuality agenda are well documented by many and I believe that there would be strong agreement from most Bible believing Christians with Tinker’s concerns.

What marks out Tinker’s response is the deeper analysis he carries out and that is where we find some very helpful analysis and some seriously problematic stuff. This is where the title of the book comes in. Tinker sees CS Lewis’ That Hideous Strength and the non-fiction version of his thesis, The Abolition of Man as brilliant prophetic.  What Lewis saw was an elitist agenda that claimed to be based on science but was in fact something called scientism, an ideology that worships the human mind separated from body and soul. Tinker links this with the Tower of Babel incident to show when godless religious ideology takes hold, it destroys communication leading to confusion.

So far, so good and I found this part of the book very helpful.  In fact, I wish it could have gone on longer.  However, Tinker takes a further step and that’s where we start to run into trouble. He argues that there is a political subtext to all of this and links it with Marxism, again this is not in itself problematic, nor is his suggestion that Marxist philosophy, especially neo-Marxism may stretch beyond economic arguments to address cultural questions. However, this is where Tinker takes us into danger waters.

Tinker opts to use the phrase “Cultural Marxism” to describe the problem. Now Cultural Marxism is a term that a lot of people use simply to mean what I have suggested above that left wing thinking finds its way beyond economic questions into culture and the arts.  Except that it is understood technically to have a very specific meaning.  If you search for the term online then what you get are links to a specific conspiracy theory, namely that the whole cultural and philosophical agenda has been set and driven by a small group of academics from before the war called “The Frankfurt School.”

Now Melvin is quick to dismiss the suggestion that Cultural Marxism is a conspiracy theory.[6] The problem is that the term is being used and known to be used as short hand for a specific conspiracy theory that the world is in the control of a small but wealthy and powerful cabal and that the cabal happens to be Jewish.

Now at first glance when I saw early summaries and reviews, I assumed that Tinker was merely using the term “Cultural Marxism” naively and carelessly as an umbrella term for politically correct post modern theory. However, in the book, he explicitly makes the link to the Frankfurt School. Most worryingly of all in an unfortunate footnote Tinker links the integration of those from the Frankfurt School into American society with Jewish institutions. [7]

Now, I don’t believe that Tinker has intentionally set out to push an antisemitic conspiracy theory and yet there in his book is exactly such a thing. This is hugely problematic because unwittingly the author and publishers are allowing an idea to seep out into the Christian culture and furthermore this is likely to hinder evangelism to people from Jewish backgrounds. Concerning as well is that the book has been endorsed by some serious Evangelical heavyweights and the problem seems to have been completely missed.

What has led to this?  Well I want to suggest a couple of problems. First of all, in the postscript we see the all too common pejorative use of the term Woke. I think that our theological constituency has written off a whole political constituency to the point where we cannot hear its warnings. We are in a situation where the term “Woke” is used as an umbrella for PC, anti-racist, LGBTQ, environmentalist so that anyone who warns about racism must be part of that whole agenda and therefore their views can be discounted.

At the same time, influenced by the American culture wars, there is a tendency then to see people on the political and cultural right as our allies in this war on wokeness. So, reading through the book, I note quotes citations and positive refences to those on the right and the alt-right: Jordan Peterson, Douglas Murray, Conservative Home, The Conservative Woman and Breitbart are primary sources.  This leads Tinker into even more troubled waters when he sources William Lind and The Nationalist Archive website for his material on Cultural Marxism and the Frankfurt School.[8] The problem here is that Lind is seen generally as being the lead proponent of the conspiracy theory and as the title implies is a website that promotes nationalist ideology.  The risk is that our theological presuppositions are once again being confused with political ideology.

Now, there is some good material in Tinker’s book and I wouldn’t want this to be lost or for Melvin’s mistakes here to lead to the full force of cancel culture being unleashed on him. However I believe the book needs to be withdrawn and significantly revised.

If Tinker wishes to use the term “cultural Marxism” and to be fair it would have been a very helpful term without the toxic association, then he needs to give a bit of time to recognising the toxity, distinguishing and justifying his usage. He may do better to just find a different term.  I would just drop all the stuff about the Frankfurt school, it is needless, doesn’t add anything to the argument that there are competing ideologies and idolatries out there and takes us into disturbing territory. I would also suggest a revised, less rushed engagement with Black Lives Matter if he believes that is essential, although to do the subject justice might take a separate project rather than shoehorning it into this book.

I would encourage us as Christians to be careful about the stuff we pick up and don’t do due diligence on. There is a real risk that we end up unintentionally spreading unhelpful, hurtful things and distracting from the essential Gospel message that we have to share.

Furthermore, whilst I urge Christian authors to be careful in their research, we are all fallible whether publishing a book or writing a blog, particularly when writing beyond our own immediate interests/discipline and when not writing as academics. However as I’ve insisted several times in the past, there is a responsibility on those who edit, publish and review to provide wise and gracious accountability to reduce the risk of mistakes like this getting through. I would encourage the publisher to review its own systems and practices.

I am disappointed with this book because of the deficiencies but an hopeful that it will be revised so that those thing can be corrected. I understand that Melvin has a new book on Revelation out and I will be looking forward to reading that soon.

I prepared this review in November 2020 in response to being asked for my thoughts on the book. I decided not to publish initially as there was private engagement with the author and publishers. I believe that Melvin Tinker has taken the concerns seriously and intends to publish a revised edition of the book. However I was recently sent a link to this response from the publishers which sadly did not seem to grasp the seriousness of the concerns raised and indeed responded to genuine concern pejoratively.  Whilst the publisher makes a welcome condemnation of antisemitism, the concern raised was never that they or the author were antisemitic but that we need to be alert to our use of sources and of language.  But furthermore, I think there are wider questions about how we engage with issues concerning culture and how Christians engage helpfully with one another on these matters.

[1] Tinker, That Hideous Strength, 63-64.

[2] Tinker, That Hideous Strength, 65.

[3] Tinker, That Hideous Strength, 88-105.

[4] Tinker, That Hideous Strength, 174.

[5] Tinker, That Hideous Strength, 177.

[6] Tinker, That Hideous Strength,77.

[7] Tinker, That Hideous Strength, 74.

[8] Tinker, That Hideous Strength,77, 188.

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