Why we still need nuance

One of the unfortunate things about words is how readily weaponised they are. Language, by its very essence, is in constant flux, embodying the tension that will always exist between tight definition and everyday use. This is something which is irreducible, a simple fact that bears no resistance. With the advent of a new textual age, where spoken words and face-to-face dialogue have been progressively replaced by short form messaging, words have become more and more a part of the arsenal of opposing sides, meaning that a term’s adoption, appropriation, or redefinition can be highly politicised. One such word is ‘nuance’.

Nuance has come to have an increased currency in the ongoing skirmishes between Christianity and the culture in which it finds itself. A patent and plain statement of fact can be easily dismissed by the simple accusation that it lacks nuance, without any real interrogation as to why that may or may not be the case. Truths which are held at the level of conviction are slickly undermined by the insertion of this one word, suggesting a gullibility on the part of one’s opponent. Nuance has become an intellectualised way of telling people to ‘shut up’, all the while maintaining a facade of sophistication and urbanity.

The response to such an approach tends to create its own problems, and can readily play into the hands of those who have used nuance in an incendiary way. The opposite of hijacked nuance is not brute bluntness, nor knuckle-dragging insistence that detail does not really matter. The best way to meet the dismissal of conviction from public discourse is not rant or to rage, or to resort to an irate waving of the fist at the seeming cleverness of postmodern complication in our conversations. These realities do not appear to be sinking in to the hearts and minds of those evangelicals who are most vocal in the public space.

Ours is the age of populism, an era in which the moral and philosophical decisions of whole sections of society are made on a sensory basis and in an emotional way. Our exposure to over-advertising for two or three generations has made us persistently vulnerable to slogan and to propaganda, and the hive-mindlessness of social media both features and feeds this element of the modern psyche. It is now possible to gather up a posse to enforce our position socially, politically, or theologically – a group which can become so strong that it never need articulate or question its most basic tenets and beliefs.

One of the tragedies of the modern church, and the travesty of ministries which have established their integrity for more than a generation, is that these tactics have infiltrated how truth is being presented and proclaimed in the public square. The pulley of public conversation is weighted and freighted by outrage, by tense and terse statement and counter-statement, and the mixture of this with the gospel deflects from our message and infects our whole manner as we face the world.

This is where we desperately need true nuance in our thinking. An easily forgotten reality is that the Reformation and Humanism once walked hand in hand. This was not the marriage of spiritual and secular concerns, but an understanding that logically considered, historically grounded, irenically argued truth can win the heart and the mind much more readily than banner and bugles at dawn. Luther was a crude and coarse conversationalist, but he was also capable of tremendous intricacy and detail in his writing and thinking. The internecine disputes over the Lord’s Supper were not exercises in mud-slinging, but the convicted articulation of nuanced concepts around this element of the church’s life and ministry. In the Puritan era the ‘animadversion’ was a polished art form, the procedural and precise interrogation of an opponent’s position, before the statement of one’s own view. I once had a student represent Herman Bavinck’s view of the nature of God in Hegelian terms, precisely because Reformed Dogmatics did such a marvellous job of representing that philosophy fairly. Complexity and intellectual rigour are in the blood-stream of Reformed thought to such an extent that one might venture to say that secular humanism and liberalism are borrowing our tools when they resort to nuance.

The present danger for Reformed thinking is that it would sell this birthright, that it would set its sail to the wind of populism, and indulge in a solipsistic restatement of its views in bold print, believing that there are no other factors to be accounted for. In some senses this is happening already. The grumbling appendix which is the issue of women preachers within conservative evangelical circles is not so much being probed with a scalpel as being bludgeoned with a sledgehammer in the public realm. Issues of race, of sexuality, of basic human identity are being hoisted on banners, and marched to the band-tunes of political pragmatism -a parade which plays right into the hands of those who believe that Christianity is essentially low brow and unthinking.

We desperately need nuance, not as a means of diluting our own views, or deflating those of others, but as a way of showing that the gospel of Jesus Christ is undeniably adept at questioning our basic assumptions as human beings, and providing answers which satisfy the mind as well as the emotions. We need nuance to showcase the precise contours of the truths we espouse, rescuing key ideas about the faith from the jaws of error on one hand, and the claws of over-simplification on the other. We need Christian preachers, writers, and thinkers who can more than fairly delineate the views of their opponents, and robustly communicate their own position. In the absence of this we will marry our message to the spirit of the age, to the faux-outrage of social media, or to the easy option of just saying what we believe and rallying our co-believers to shout louder than those who disagree with us. This will win crowds in the short term and lose all credibility in the long term. Nuance is our heritage, it is a reality in terms of the Bible’s depiction of the human heart, and it is too vital a framework for understanding for its potency to be surrendered to those who stand against the gospel.

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