May 7, 2017

"Connected Universe" and "the Five C's of Historical Thinking"

With their 15th feature film in this series, Marvel Studios continues to demonstrate cinematic world-building that has depth, vision, and four-dimensional verisimilitude. The characters and situations in the Marvel Cinematic Universe continue developing in ways that are well thought through, overall. But not least among the many reasons I love watching these MCU movies is because great storytelling inspires me to think about historiography. Specifically, the idea of "Connectedness" reminds me of Thomas Andrews' and Flannery Burke's "Five C's of Thinking Historically", from their 2007 article for the AHA (American Historical Association).

The Five C's are: (1) Change over Time, (2) Context, (3) Causality, (4) Contingency, and (5) Complexity. It's an important piece that's received a great deal of attention, so I won't attempt to summarize it here, but I will briefly note the prominence of Sam Wineburg's 2001 classic, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

Although Wineburg didn't compare fiction and non-fiction, it is my personal observation that one of the many ways human brains begin learn to think historically is by maintaining an awareness of elaborate fictional worlds as they develop. In this regard, I further believe that serialized storytelling in visual media has the advantage of keeping CHANGE front and center. In a novel, you might forget the main character received a meaningful scar or developed a limp (until the text finds a reason to remind you about such a detail), but in films, television, or comic books you receive constant reminders of those residual changes simply because of the visual representation. The Marvel Comics Universe (like their Distinguished Competition) are the products of literally thousands of story creators - hundreds each year - who have modified a single story world with new creative dynamics on a monthly basis, and for several decades. There's a lot to keep up with, and although the visual aspect makes the information more feasibly managed, that also expands the limits of how much development can be attempted, from one year to another. 

My point here is that it can be a bit of a cognitive workout. Keeping up with an entire "connected universe" pushes the brain in some ways that you don't get if the story content of your favorite tv show is more self-contained and episodic. Or, as my daughter pointed out with Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, the whole audience can enjoy the story on a surface level but it also rewards thoughtful viewers who make a few deeper connections (and I'm not just talking about "easter eggs"; watch some of the recent mini-features on the MCU DVDs for commentary about this). I say again, this is one common way in which people begin to develop important skills in historical thinking. Others learn the 5 C's when they become skillful at party planning, or take on long-term logistical problems, or learn to manage complex ongoing projects, and so forth.

Some academic professionals learn to think historically because they write books, which require long term vision, accomplishing a variety of tasks on a demanding schedule, and overcoming a complex set of obstacles as the project develops. In fact, I've met some scholars who reveal no penchant for historical thinking except when they're thinking about the development of documents - like the supposed proto-history of the four cannonical Gospels. It might even be fair to say that most of the genuine historical thinking which one typically comes across in the guild of New Testament scholars has typically focused on Gospel composition. In those conversations, they assess complex hypothetical scenarios, but when I string together purported events featuring the Gospels narrative protagonist(s), or featuring Paul and his traveling companions, I too often get responses ranging from "deer in headlights" to "you can't do that" to "I don't trust these kinds of constructions." Well, fiddle-de-dee. 

WHY don't YOU deal well with historical thinking? 

Perhaps one reason you don't is because you haven't yet had the pleasure of engaging your mind at great length with a large enough fictional universe. Yes, there are other ways to get there, as I've noted above, and obviously not everyone who watches Marvel Movies or reads Marvel Comics will engage them deeply enough to develop the mental skills which can lead towards effective historical thinking. But this kind of thing is a big opportunity. At the very least, it's a potential means of entry.

Regular readers know how much I long for the day when all christian believers (or, just for a start, trained professional scholars) will engage the "story content" of the New Testament with the same kind of "mentally connected" world building that enables the development of thinking about (1) Change over Time, (2) Context, (3) Causality, (4) Contingency, and (5) Complexity.

If you can't do that yet when thinking about the historical past, try engaging deeply for a number of years with an elaborate fictional universe that keeps developing continuously. Great historical minds do occasionally begin their development from such humble beginnings.

Besides, fiction and non-fiction are alike in many other aspects. If you want to know more about that, try searching my site here, or waiting to see what I write in the future.


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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton