Is nuance the new thing?

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

One thing that I have always appreciated about both my father and my husband is that neither seems to see the world in strictly black-and-white terms. They tend to think before they speak. They usually take their time when responding to questions. They like to examine every angle.

Both are open to changing their minds, listening to other people, and pausing before passing judgment. Unlike me, they are not unnerved by silence, or afraid that inconclusiveness is a sign of weakness or complicity. In other words, they aren’t exactly yes-or-no-answer kinds of guys.

Perhaps this has had a subconscious effect on my fondness for Barack Obama. The media has consistently characterized his approach to a variety of issues as “nuanced,” a description that employs the adjective form of “nuance”--a word which, according to Webster, means “a subtle difference or distinction in expression, meaning, responses, etc.” Synonyms include “subtlety,” “hint,” and “refinement.” What the media means by this is that Barack Obama takes too long to answer questions. “He’s got to do better at getting right to the point!” the pundits say.  “He comes across as ambiguous, vague, professorial, perhaps even indecisive.”

For example, when asked by George Stephanopoulos about whether or not he supports affirmative action, the senator referred to his own daughters as examples of the reform needed in the system. His girls “should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged,” despite their race, he said. While white kids, “who have been disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty” should perhaps be counted as disadvantaged.  According to Obama, affirmative action should be used to oppose both traditional discrimination and reverse discrimination, and should be reformed to help disadvantaged people regardless of race.

That’s a very thoughtful, but inexact answer. And some folks don’t like it, because it doesn’t begin with “absolutely yes” or “absolutely no.”

(Other examples include Obama’s softening on rigid troop withdrawal deadlines and shifts in his positions on offshore oil drilling and NAFTA.)

Folks on the Right charge him with flip-flopping and criticize him for being too vague. But I can’t help but wonder if, after eight years of unblinking decisiveness from George W. Bush, America isn’t ready for a guy who will pause before committing billions of dollars and thousands of lives to a cause, and who recognizes the importance of thoughtful give-and-take when it comes to making policy and pursuing diplomacy.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see about that…

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I’d like to think of my position regarding the abortion issue to be somewhat “nuanced.” If someone were to ask me if I am pro-life, I would have to say “yes, but maybe not exactly in the way that you might think.” How I feel about abortion, and why I plan to vote a certain way about it, cannot exactly be summed up in one or two sentences. And as I said in the post, while the word “nuance” can be used to suggest that I am thoughtful and wise in my approach, it could also mean that I don’t know what  I’m talking about and am afraid to commit to one position or the other.

Interestingly, the history of the word “nuance” begins with its use in Middle French to mean “a shade of color.” Webster’s second definition reads: “a very slight difference or variation in color or tone.” In this way, Barack Obama literally embodies the essence of the word.  Is he black, or is he white? Ironically, there isn’t a black-or-white answer to that question. He is both.

So we’ve seen how “nuance” is growing in acceptance in the realm of politics. I wonder if we will also see an embrace of “nuance” in the realm of faith and religion, particularly as our culture becomes increasingly postmodern.

While leaders in the evangelical establishment continue to defend rigid interpretations of doctrine and decry the questions posed by movements like the Emerging Church, I’m beginning to wonder how much longer the Church can survive with short, non-negotiable answers to tough questions.

For example, I’d say that the question, “Do all Muslims go to hell?” deserves a much more nuanced response than the one I grew up with…as does the question, “What is hell?” or “What is eternal life?” Young skeptics like me long to deconstruct old notions of truth, salvation, faith, and doubt, and in doing so, we have developed ideas that can easily be described as “subtle differences or distinctions in expression, meaning, or response,” or “very slight differences or variation in color or tone.”  In short, we don’t like short answers anymore. We like nuance.

What do you think? Is nuance the new thing? What sort of impression does a nuanced answer leave you with? Thoughtful? Indecisive? Compromising? Authentic?

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