The Problem of Resolution

by Glenn on April 13, 2020

I’ve been thinking about the problem of resolution, lately. The idea can be understood with the analogy of a jpg image. Someone sends you an image of something, it makes a big difference whether that file is 56k or 3.5mb or 20mb. When you open it up to look at it, what you see will depend on the amount of detail included. The 56k file is low resolution. The 20mb provides high resolution. The 3.5mb may be, like Goldilocks (and to mix my metaphors a bit), just right. The image represents reality and depending on how you are using the image you may need higher or lower resolution.

For example, if I want to tell someone about the book I finished last week, David Ewing Duncan’s Calendar: Humanity’s Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year (New York: Avon Books, 1998), I have the problem of how much resolution I want to use to talk about it. The lowest resolution would be something like just the title: “I read Calendar by David Duncan.” That may be appropriate in a conversation where someone asks, “Have you read anything good, lately?” As it turns out I did and I have. You give the title and that gives the other person the opportunity to ask (or not) “What’s that about?” And then you shift into higher resolution. And that’s where you say something more along the lines of, “Well, it’s the story of how we got the calendar and the surprising twists and turns along the way. The way the story is presented is something like the story of Western Civilization from pre-history to Julius Caesar (from whom we get the Julian Calendar) to Pope Gregory (who inaugurated our current Gregorian system) to modern considerations, like the atomic clock.”

If you wanted higher resolution, you might talk about some of the things you learned along the way, like the difference between the lunar and the solar calendar; the various ways to measure a year (for example, the tropical year from vernal equinox to vernal equinox, which varies from year to year, or the sidereal year, which tracks the time the earth travels around the sun based on a fixed point in space—spoiler: they’re not the same.); the origins of the names of dates and months; the problems in measuring the year, including the fact that the motion of the earth around the sun is slowing down and inconsistent from year to year; and some of the things that make your head hurt: for example, the fact that there was no year zero and so the difference from 1 B.C. to 1 A.D. (using the older terminology) is just one year; for many years there were two calendars going on at the same time (“New Style” and “Old Style”—although there are multiple calendars going on right now, as in the Jewish and Islamic worlds, of which most of us are unaware); and did you know about those missing days in our calendar? They just dropped off eleven days in 1752. Gone. So, strictly speaking, April 8, 1720 was not 300 years ago. It was 299 years and 354 days ago. (I think. Leap days mess things up pretty good.)

One of the interesting subplots in the story is that the basic understanding we have today of an earth that revolves around the sun took a while to get figured out and then accepted. While we (in the Protestant world) tend to praise Martin Luther for his understanding of Scripture (and not his ideas about the Jewish people), his understanding of the world was imprecise. Where Copernicus was establishing a “sun-centered” understanding of the solar system, Martin Luther said of him, “The fool wants to overturn the whole science of astronomy but, according to the Scripture, Joshua bade the sun and not the earth to stand still.”[1]

Or course we need lower resolution or we couldn’t function. If someone asked me about the book I just read, imagine if I tried to relate that book in 100% resolution. They said, “Tell me about the book,” and I start in, “Well, the introduction begins with a quote by Thomas Carlyle that reads, ‘The . . . silent, never-resting thing called time, rolling, rushing on, swift, silent, like an all-embracing ocean tide . . . this is forever very literally a miracle; a thing to strike us dumb.’ And then the author begins the book with a story, ‘Not long ago I met a well-known surgeon dying in a hospital in Richmond, Virginia. He was a distressingly emaciated figure, his face a mask of skin over his skull, his hands a pale shade of purple from weeks of intravenous needles. Yet his voice remained deep and powerful, his eyes, lively. …’”

So then I continue on for, what, ten, fourteen hours reciting the book. There’s no time for that in anyone’s life, either for you to read the book aloud to someone else or for the other person to bear up under the affliction of listening to you read for that long. A related issue is the fact that I certainly don’t have the kind of memory (eidetic or photographic) that would allow this sort of high resolution presentation without the physical book with me. But, again, who would want that 100% resolution? The response back would be, “I wanted to know about the book; I didn’t want you to recite the book.”

And so we are constantly using lower resolution in our discussions throughout the day and in life. This is good and necessary. But too low a resolution can be problematic in a couple of ways. First, when there’s not enough “there” there to have a meaningful discussion. “Tell me about the book.” “Well, there were printed pages bound together words.” Yeah, we knew that much. That’s not that helpful. Or maybe you had read it on a Kindle and so when they ask you to tell them about the book, you say, “It’s on my Kindle.” Still not helpful. This is a rather benign problem, though. All you need to do is to increase the resolution.

The second low-resolution issue is worse and comes when the lower image resolution actually distorts the image. You have in mind a picture of a dog, but you offer a lower resolution image that looks like or you call a cat. In this case, though, you don’t want to increase the resolution because it might interfere with whatever point you are making. But, safe to say, we want to avoid both things, oversimplification and distortion.

I thought about this as I finished the second chapter of another book about the calendar (the second of three I want to read), Measuring Eternity: The Search for the Beginning of Time (New York: Broadway Books, 2001). The chapter is called “The Bishop and the Book” and tells the story of Bishop James Ussher who famously computed the beginning of the universe, which he figured out began at 6:00 pm on Saturday, October 22, 4004 B.C. In the past I’ve only been offered and have accepted a low-resolution image of Ussher as sort of this pathetic figure who (you need to roll your eyes when you say this or convey with a sarcastic tone of Can you believe this?), in great hubris, thought the earth was young and that he could actually pinpoint the day the universe began. Leaving aside the can of worms of the age and origin of the world, there’s so much more to Bishop Ussher’s life, which you discover in this chapter. He’s not a punchline to demonstrate how silly some Christians are, but he was a brilliant and disciplined man who spent the course of a long life in rather tumultuous times trying to solve a problem with the best evidence available guided by long-held assumptions about the nature of the Bible.

The cure for too low a resolution here is to say, without irony, that (and this is just a first draft) in a moment in history when people either thought the universe had no beginning or had easily-refuted computations for a beginning date, Bishop Ussher, after many years of study, found a way to define a start date for the universe, which he traced back to 6:00 pm on Saturday, October 22, 4004 B.C.

One reason not to make fun of Bishop Ussher is that he was right in one aspect—the universe has an origin. I think most scientists would allow for a Big Bang to get things going even if they said that happened way longer than 6,000 years ago and would not consider it a God-produced process.

I ran into a resolution problem several weeks ago when, for a course, I was asked to read an article titled, “The Bible and History,” by Justo L. González. The whole article is a neat and relatively short summary of where the Bible came from and how the church has related to it over time. I struggled with the first sentence, though:

“Over a long journey of nearly twenty centuries, the church has always been able to count on the presence of the Bible.”

My problem was with that article, “the,” as in “the Bible.” This sort of goes against everything that González then sets out to do, which is to explain how what we think of, today, as the Bible came together in a process over time. The only Bible that early Christians had was the Hebrew Scriptures. Then the writings of the early church were accepted as the word of God and in the fourth century a Bible was codified. That’s relatively straightforward, although it’s more complicated than that. Gonzáles doesn’t get into the fact that different parts of the Church have different Bibles. Catholic Bibles include apocryphal writings while most while Protestants take a different, less (or not) inspired, view of them.

Further, to say that the church always had the Bible ignores the fact that for a good portion of Western history, most people couldn’t read and didn’t own a Bible. For a long haul, the Bible was written in languages (either the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek or the translated Latin) that most people no longer spoke. While it is possible to say the church always had the Bible, it’s a little deceptive because for all practical purposes, just a small part of the church had access to that Bible. It’s one thing for the church to have a Bible in the sense that the town monastery has a Bible in Latin. It’s another thing to say that many church members possess a Bible in a language they actually read and speak. My point is that “the” Bible looks very different depending on what point in time you look at it and what part of the world you are in. This is a resolution problem, perhaps of the first kind. There’s no attempt to distort anything. It’s just too simple an image.

There’s another resolution problem that is more serious that I am finding as I read through Joel Osteen’s The Power of Favor. There the author likes to boil down stories so they may be used as illustrations for the point being made. The unfortunate thing is that those stories are being distorted. Rather than noticing what the story has to teach, there’s a point that has to be made and the stories are being used to buttress that point. In fairness, all preachers use low resolution images of Bible stories from time to time. The issue is, are you teaching a point the Bible makes and mentioning different places in the Bible where this is discussed, or do you have a point you want to make and want the Bible to support you? The term for this is “proof-texting.”

We have a resolution problem in that the Bible is a pretty big book. At an hour a day, it takes you several months to read through it. And so if you are answering the question of what does the Bible say, then you simply must reduce it to something like: The Bible is the story of a good world gone wrong and what God has done, is doing, and will do about it. The question is whether that is a good distillation or an inappropriate distortion, in which case we will have to increase the resolution and say more.

And, even on a smaller scale, when you wish to talk about a Bible character, like Joseph, for example, you have to offer a lower image resolution than the scriptures offer. The trick, is to offer a resolution that is simple, but not too simple, and accurate, without too much distortion.



[1] David Ewing Duncan, Calendar: Humanity’s Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year (New York: Avon Book, 1998), p. 184.