Why Talk About Frames?

Academic types like to talk about frames a lot, at least in my neck of the woods. “Let’s reframe that question.” “Allow me to frame this for you.” You’ll notice that I use the term in my main menu. I discuss the Theoretical Frames, Theological Frames, and the Biblical Frames of my research project.

FramesWhat is a frame, and what do I mean when I say it? The term frame brings three very different images to my mind. The first is a picture frame, or the boundaries in which a photographer/painter captures an image. A picture frame is limited and cannot capture the entire three-dimensional reality it seeks to describe. When taken this way, what is left outside of the frame is as important as what is captured in the frame.1

The second picture is that of the framework of a house. Carpenters frame a house with wood. This is the basic structure that determines the shape and stability of everything else that will follow in the construction process. The computer equivalent is the hardware of a computer that dictates how the software works. Taken this way, the frame is the prejudice and presuppositions that someone brings to a topic.2

The third picture is that of film. Motion pictures travel at a rate of 24 frames/second. They are a sequence of still images that create the illusion of movement when run together so quickly. A single frame is a static snapshot—frozen in time—that tells only a fraction of the larger story. It is accurate, but incomplete.3

All of these images are helpful when using the term frame in discussing a topic. They each share one thing in common, but also provide a helpful nuance to the meaning. Their common theme is limitation. Human beings are limited. We are bound by language, culture, intellect, knowledge, physical bodies, time, etc. No one person can know everything, talk about everything, or see something from every perspective. The frame describes our unique limitation within which we must operate and enter the discussion.

Each image offers a unique nuance to the notion of limitation. The picture frame describes our limitations in terms of choosing to look at one thing, but needing to leave something else out of the discussion—whether intentionally or out of necessity.4 The house frame describes the limitation as a fixed way in which ideas form within our mind. This seemingly rigid architecture is due to various predetermined factors, e.g. language, culture, training, tradition, etc.5 The movie frame describes our limitation in terms of time and history, as any statement—whether spoken or in writing—is immediately locked into a static moment as the rest of experience and knowledge moves beyond it.6

Yes, this is me…in a frame.

I have frames. I have limitations. I am a white, middle-class, middle-aged, post-protestant, neo-Lutheran, mid-western, suburban, heterosexual, married, male with a ministry background in mega-Evangelical, and micro-Emergent-house church who has a specific historical and geographical location.7 I can only know and perceive the world from within these frames.

The task and challenge of the scholar and theologian is to: 1) seek to be as aware as possible of one’s own frame, and, 2) expand that frame as much as possible through conversation with people from other frames.

I offer my frames to you, the reader, not as the absolute truth behind my research, but as a snapshot of where I am while I am asking the questions that I am asking during this research project.

Got the picture (frame)?

  1. Jolyon Mitchell provides an excellent discussion of this use of frames. Mitchell, Jolyon P. Media Violence and Christian Ethics New Studies in Christian Ethics. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. See the illustrations at the bottom of this post for a discussion of this book. []
  2. Hans-Georg Gadamer speaks of fruitful prejudices and the boundaries of language—linguisticalitythat makes human communication limited. Gadamer’s equivalent to our discussion of frames is the term horizon. He calls for a fusion of horizons in order to achieve true, peaceful, and productive communication. Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. London: Sheed & Ward, 1975. []
  3. Heidegger investigates the relationship between time and being. He builds upon Dilthey’s work around historicity and the limitations of time and space. Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. London: SCM Press, 1962. []
  4. again, this is an interesting discussion regarding what is left out of a frame. Sometimes we leave things out because we simply cannot include everything. Our argument would become muddied and meaningless if we included everything. Scholars often use footnotes—like this—to attend to that which has been left out. Even then, we cannot attend to everything. Other times the things that are left out of the frame are things that are still invisible to the author. These things still lie behind the author’s horizon. []
  5. Wittgenstein would go so far as to say that these rigid boundaries make it impossible to actually communicate across language boundaries. Each language is its own game, using its own rules, and meaning is lost between games. Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. New York: Macmillan, 1962. []
  6. This is the danger in writing. Things we write today become fixed in time and take on a life of their own. Twenty years from now we may have moved past the horizon that framed a particular writing and have a completely different perspective on the topic. And yet, the text remains. A reader may pick up the earlier text fifty years from now, long after we are dead, and create a distorted perception our perspective, based upon that single text. I have experienced this already within my own body of work. It is important to consult as much of an author’s writings as possible before attempting to represent the author’s perspective. However, as Derrida, et alia, would say, the text has its own life, and the reader is ultimately the one who imputes meaning into the text. []
  7. see my story here []