A Tale of Two Frames

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by James Goldberg

(cc) Kellinahandbasket

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.

  • How do you work with the words of prophets and apostles in your life, maintaining your intellectual curiosity and analytical skills while allowing a text to work on you as you work on it?
  • What other kinds of texts are you comfortable allowing to work on you?

About James Goldberg

James Goldberg's family is Jewish on one side, Sikh on the other, and Mormon in the middle. Goldberg co-edits the Everyday Mormon Writer literary website, teaches composition and creative writing courses at BYU, and blogs at Mormon Midrashim. His debut novel, The Five Books of Jesus, was published in September 2012.

4 Responses to A Tale of Two Frames

  1. Schulze says:

    I am still too overwhelmed to “touch” the sacred words that lightened up my heart. I still “swimm” in that glow, in that light. Probably the days will come when I watch and read those wonderful words again: On these “every-day-days” when my heart needs a strenghthening, need the power. I´m so glad that I always -may it be day, may it be night- watch and listen to the words and wisdom of General Conference.

  2. Paul says:

    Outstanding piece, James. Thanks for sharing it.

    I agree that both frames have their place in our lives, and in some cases it may be tricky to select the proper frame. I have found that I can walk from one frame to another (though until I read your essay, I didn’t realize this was what I was doing). I may start by trying to assess “how it is” and then find myself doing a self-assessment instead. This is particularly true for me with scripture study and, yes, conference talks.

    My “natural man” tends to assume I know everything, and my university training taught me how to analyze, so that is generally my first approach. But especially in the case of subjects that hit me close to the heart, I often find myself quickly turned inside out, focusing on how I align with the message rather than dissecting the message itself.

  3. Lisa says:

    Well sometimes the messages can be so overwhelming. I like to take them in bite sized pieces and implement them in my life. Thinking we are above the message or have mastered it denotes perfection and that I am not.

  4. jendoop says:

    Great post! It’s interesting how I choose one of these approaches based on the source. If I’m reading a newspaper, watching TV/news, listening to the radio I use #1 first. If it passes the basic test I move on to #2. If I’m reading something from a friend, family member, or official church doctrine I skip #1 and go to #2. BUT if something from #1 is so glaringly horrid that I notice in my pursuit of #2, I jump to #1 or pitch it all together.

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