Friday, February 26, 2016

A Classic Cultural History of Antebellum America

Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-class Culture in America, 1830-1870. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982.

"You can't judge a book by its cover."

"You never get a second chance to make a first impression."

So which is it? A cultural history (which the author distinguishes from a social history), Karen Halttunen's Confidence Men and Painted Women might be considered as a study of the tension between those two pieces of proverbial wisdom in antebellum America.

Chapters 1 and 2 describe the forces that gave rise to a social problem. What generated the specter of the "confidence man" and the "painted woman," people who preyed upon young men of the period? Halttunen points to the tremendous urbanization of the time. What has been dubbed by historian Charles Sellers "the Market Revolution" had a downside: the growing antebellum city led to anonymity and increasing social disorientation.

In Chapters 3 through 5, the heart of the book, Halttunen describes "the cultural effort to resolve the problem of hypocrisy with the sentimental ideal of sincerity" (xvi). Writers of conduct manuals waged a cultural battle on the fronts of genteel codes for women's dress (chapter 3), social etiquette (chapter 4), and mourning rituals (chapter 5).

But eventually, the custodians of American culture came to realize that their plans could be, and were being, subverted. Halttunen reiterates her conclusion: "Those archetypal parlor hypocrites, the confidence man and the painted woman, were masters of the false art of etiquette: their artificial manners were assumed merely to dazzle and deceive an ingenuous audience. Sentimental critics of middle-class culture feared that etiquette, like fashion, was poisoning American society with hypocrisy" (92). In other words, the signs of gentility, signs meant to identify respectable middle-class status, could be faked by any proficient confidence man or painted woman.

Chapter 6, along with the book's conclusion and epilogue, explores the decline and derision after mid-century of the standards upheld by the early, popular conduct manuals. This part of the book also examines the image of the confidence man as it extended into the twentieth century. This is a deeply-researched and well-written book. A third of a century after it was first published, it holds up quite well.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Five Purposes of the Book of Acts

An acquaintance on Facebook recently posted this: I'm preparing to introduce our new class on the book of Acts. So I ask, "What is the book about?" Or put another way, "Why was it written? What does the author intend for his readers to get out of this work?" This is a great question. It challenged me to come up with the following. The Book of Acts was written . . .

1. To present a selective history of the earliest Christian movement, which purports to be an extension of the life of Jesus himself (1:1). According to this perspective, the Gospel of Luke, volume one of Luke's two-part work, reports what Jesus had merely begun to do and to teach.

2. To identify this movement, the Way (9:2), as the long-awaited restoration of Israel and the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham (for example, 3:24-25).

3. To show that Christ Jesus the Lord remains present with his people by means of the Holy Spirit (1:1-8; 5:32; 16:6-10).

4. To showcase Christian teaching and preaching. The Book of Acts contains a high percentage of public discussions and sermons. One scholar determined that compared to other historical works written in classical antiquity, Acts contains a concentration of speech material five times greater than the average. Luke seems to be saying, "If you're responding to questions about the faith, and preaching the gospel, here's how it's done."

5.  To present a standard view of how to become a Christian, and what it means to be a Christian. A believing response to the preached message includes repentance and baptism into Christ, which bring the forgiveness of sins and the reception of the Holy Spirit (2:38). For repentance as the demand, see 17:30. For baptism as the expected response, see passages like 8:12 and 18:8.