Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Tale of Two Frames

Let's say we encounter a carefully crafted piece of language--whether it's a popular novel or a conference talk--and care enough to keep thinking about it, or maybe even to talk with others.

It seems to me that we have at least two possible ways to frame our thoughts or discussion on the work:

1) We look at the work.

What got me thinking about this topic was a blog post I saw yesterday about Elder Holland's conference talk. The post is pretty simple--it summarizes the talk and then invites readers to share their opinions, which is pretty standard formatting for a discussion blog.

But in this case, that standard format felt a little underwhelming to me. And I think it's because talking about a work often presupposes that we are beyond it--that we look down from our established lives and vast knowledge bases. The very act of asking, "How was it?" puts us in the position of evaluator or critic, prioritizing our tastes and attitudes over the message of the work.

2) We let the work look at us.

As I thought about my disappointment with a "How was it?" discussion of General Conference, it occurred to me that we have another option: instead of framing the work as the object of our evaluation, we can try reframing our lives by the work. Rather than asking "How was the talk?", we can ask "How is my life in light of this talk?"

This type of discussion prioritizes the message of the work over our default tastes, attitudes, and experiences. When we frame a work this way, we lend it authority rather than assuming authority over it. 

Therefore. . .what?

In the case of Elder Holland's general conference talk, I definitely prefer the second way of framing to the first, but I don't want to suggest that the moral of this story is that the second kind of framing is better. In fact, I think the second kind of framing is what makes some media so harmful: it's a disaster when people use Hollywood portrayals of romance, for example, as authorities for evaluating their own lives.

I am grateful for parents who taught me, from a very young age, to use the first approach when I watch a commercial--and who taught me, also at a very young age, to use the second approach when I read the gospels. But since most of what I encounter these days falls into the vast space between a toy ad and Jesus, I'm not sure I have a set reflex for how to frame the messages I encounter. 

Sometimes, I miss out on a great sermon or artwork because I'm too busy deciding what I think of it to let it really change my thinking.

Other times, I lend an article or story too much power by applying it to my life when I should be thinking about whether it's good and reliable first.

I hope, though, that thinking consciously about these two types of frames will help me choose better which way to frame things. And I hope that being aware of this framing choice will help me recognize more clearly how conversations already happening around me are framed, giving me a clearer choice to either accept or reject the frame rather than simply getting pulled into it.


  1. Elder Holland's talk was my favorite precisely because it got me thinking about how my life stood in relation to whether I truly loved the Lord. It gave me an odd mixture of overwhelming and hopeful feelings.

    As for the two frames approach, maybe there are more frames for in-between messages? Don't know what those would be. But I wouldn't beat myself up about missing the full potential of every single useful message since there are sooooo many to digest nowadays. Sometimes I just have to shut things out to keep from going crazy.

  2. I prefer the second way to anything (as long as the source is good) because it leads to a private reaction...introspection. I don't need to hear myself pontificate any more than I already do.

  3. James, this is really something. I've actually considered these ideas, but not yet framed words to describe what I was doing; you've now captured it for me beautifully. Thanks for that.

  4. This discussion reminds me of the book "Intellectual Character" by Ron Ritchhart. I haven't actually read it, but my husband has summarized it to me. It's about how we value and acquire knowledge. My habit of digesting information is to mentally sift through ideas (and people's character traits) to separate the good and the bad, the truth and the error. I think it's a healthy skepticism. I feel blessed, though, that when I'm listening to Conference, I don't have to do that. In fact, it's the standard of truth I use when I'm sifting the rest of the time. Of course, secular people find this troubling, but when I've tried out what someone has told me to do many times and every time it has worked, I'd be a fool not to trust him or her. As for your idea that we do miss out sometimes by looking down on the work instead of letting it look at us--I find that a compelling thought. I'm constantly doing that because I don't trust the morality of the majority of artists and authors in our society. If I lived in a time or place where my values weren't so counter-cultural, I probably wouldn't do it so often. I think it's a burden of our age.

    1. "I think it's a burden of our age."


      With the possible exceptions of the city of Enoch and Nephite civilization immediately after Christ, the gospel has ALWAYS been counter-cultural. Maybe that's where we get the Old Testament phrase "The burden of the Lord."

      But I think to remain solidly counter-cultural, we need both frames. We need to know how to dissect a message and find out if the underlying values are eternal truths or "vanity under the sun." And we need to be willing to let certain works move us or jar us from slipping into the default gravity of the dominant culture.

      I do feel strongly, on a personal level, that art and literature play important roles in helping keep our minds and hearts sharp. And so I think as Latter-day Saints we desperately need artistic work that doesn't just represent our values, but actually speaks to us and challenges us to engage more deeply with the gospel.

      But that's my own Don Quixote obsession...don't know if I'm actually right...

  5. Thank you for this blog. Really I think what you're doing is important. While it was truly a blessing to be raised in a very gospel literate home, I often struggle to feel wonder and curiosity for the scriptures because they have always been part of my life.

    I'm glad to have made your virtual acquaintance,

  6. I liked this thought very much, and it reminded me of one from one of my favorite living Christian writers, N.T. Wright. He says that instead of reading the scriptures as if they has something to prove to us, we need to read them as if we have something to prove to them. And when we read the scriptures (or listen to or read conference talks) that changes everything:
    You will discover that the Bible will not let you down. You will be paying attention to it; you won’t be sitting in judgement over it. But you won’t come with a preconceived notion of what this or that passage has to mean if it is to be true. You will discover that God is speaking new truth through it. I take it as a method in my biblical studies that if I turn a corner and find myself saying, ‘Well, in that case, that verse is wrong’ that I must have turned a wrong corner somewhere. But that does not mean that I impose what I think is right on to that bit of the Bible. It means, instead, that I am forced to live with that text uncomfortably… until suddenly I come round a different corner and that verse makes a lot of sense; sense that I wouldn’t have got if I had insisted on imposing my initial view on it from day one.

    (Citation is here: http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Bible_Authoritative.htm)



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