About Nuance

Over at TeamPyro, I posted a little something about the necessity of grasping nuance in order to have a full toolkit, intellectually. One reader posted this in response:
Nuance is the post-modern enemy of clarity.

Yes, you can quote that if you wish.
And this is sadly, exactly wrong. Let me give you a graphic example:

This is a picture of a real landscape, and it's interesting in its own way, but it is completely without any nuance. That is, it is rendered in plain black and white, and while we can get the general lay of the land (so to speak), we really can't tell anything about this place.

This one is only slightly better:

The difference is subtle -- the edges where the contrast changed are not strictly white or black -- it's gray-scale, but it's sort of the wrong kind of gray scale. There's no question there's more subtle use of web-friendly colors in this picture, but it doesn't gain us anything in perceiving the picture.

This would be one example of the misuse of nuance: it's sort of a doodling along the edges where we already understand there are meaningful differences, but it doesn't add anything to what we get in the end. If this were a discussion, it would be like talking about how many different ways you can sit in the pew at church (because you should go to church, amen?) rather than understanding that going to church to worship is for your sake, and for the sake of the body of Christ.

And just to be sure we cover all the bad examples first, here's another bad example of nuance:

It's almost completely unintelligible. In fact, I'd wager that if you hadn't seen the first two images, you'd have no idea what this image was at all. It's completely useless.

But what has happened here is just another kind of the same misuse of subtlety that we got in the first one -- it goes a lot farther, and blurs all the edges to the place where all distinctions are lost. But doodling at the edges is not at all what nuance ought to achieve. Simply making the edges softer is not nuance: it's smearing.

On the other hand, this is a valuable application of nuance:

Like the last two images, this is a gray-scale image -- but look: the grays are not simply blurring the edges. They are indicating meaningful characteristics like terrain, plant life, the brightness of the sky, detailed distinctions among objects in the middle ground, etc.

This picture demonstrates significantly more nuance than any of the previous images, and tells us far more about the landscape we are viewing. And if, for example, I was going to take a hike through this place, I'd much rather have this more nuanced view of the landscape than the black and white. Why? Because more relevant details are exposed in the more nuanced image.

And how much more dramatic is the difference between the gray-scale image of this landscape and this rendering:

You can actually make out what kind of foliage there is in this landscape now, and whether it is all sand or if it has some ground cover. It actually looks like a real place once all the nuances are understood. But before we take that as the whole point, let's examine one last rendering of this image:

This is a snapshot of the center of the color photo blown up to see the pixels. This would be another example of misunderstanding nuance -- because while all the details are there, the context is completely lost. We can see all the colored dots -- and how different they are from each other -- but we can't see the relationships anymore. We are literally majoring in the minors here, seeing every jot and tittle of detail and missing (quite literally) the big picture.

Nuance is not an enemy of clear thinking: it is the result of clear thinking. Being able to grasp the distinctions in a matter without over-blowing them or distorting them into smears takes patience and a certain degree of practice.

And before anyone thinks this doesn't apply to Jesus, the Gospel or theology, think about how often all but the color photo view of an issue erupts in these public discussions of theology.

Now back to your business.