Long before The Swan wafted into living rooms across the U.S., Christian author and motivational speaker Angela Thomas found herself lamenting her “ordinary” looks. Dissatisfied with her reflection, she followed a common path: she began to color her hair, got contact lenses, and started wearing stylish clothes. The photo that accompanies her promotional material reveals an attractive, wholesome blonde with a big, inviting smile. It is hard to imagine that she harbors anxiety about her appearance.
What’s more, her CDs—made from taped speeches—reveal her to be funny, articulate and humble, full of self-deprecating, witty anecdotes about her teenage years and personal travails. Regardless of topic, her tone is forthright. A slight Southern drawl pulls in listeners eager to hear about her insecurities and longings.
Since 2000 Thomas has written eight books, selling a total of 100,000 copies. She also has a weekly radio program—heard by 750,000 listeners—that airs in Charlotte, Houston, and Nashville, and has given more than 35 speeches in the first 10 months of 2004. The Premier Speaker’s Bureau, “America’s leading source” for Christian speechmakers, lists her keynote fee as $2000 plus travel and expenses.
Takers, hungry for details about her recent divorce, the despair it caused, and how she copes with single parenthood, welcome her openness and self-reflection. It is as if she has taken the feminist adage that “the personal is political” and run with it, using her experiences as a link to larger social problems. The result is a pragmatic mix: Christian homily meets self-help, tidily packaged to promote both individual betterment and heavenly salvation.
Thomas’s latest effort, Beautiful: Seeing Yourself Through God’s Eyes, is a glossy, 186-page magazine for teenaged girls. Its cover mimics other publications intended for this audience, with headlines including: “Quiz: Is He The One?”; “Stressed and Obsessed?”; “How Well Do You Know Him?”; and “The Princess Complex: Got It?”
Like 2003’s Do You Think I’m Beautiful? and 2004’s A Beautiful Offering: Returning God’s Love with Your Life, texts Thomas penned for adult women, Beautiful zeroes in on dating, desirability, friendship and family. Accessibly written and folksy, the ’zine presents a down-to-earth, been there/done that persona for girls in search of love and acceptance.
Unlike Thomas’s earliest writings, which were published by the overtly right-wing Focus on the Family, Beautiful is shorn of heavy-handed moralism. Instead, it weaves good old-fashioned sexism into true confessions and eroticism about the Savior. It’s a bizarre mix.
Let’s start with gender. “I truly believe that the longing to be known as beautiful is a part of our design as girls,” Thomas writes. “Girls have been designed to give special attention to matters of the heart: “Whether we admit it or not, each of us came wired so very much alike—feminine, relational, feeling and yearning for the arms of a true love.”
Forget the social construction of identity. For Thomas, girls and the women they’ll become are cut from one mold. Race, class, ethnicity and sexual preference are irrelevant. We’re all highly emotional seekers of our own aesthetic perfection. Heterosexual, too.
And what does every straight girl want? A boy or man-friend. Yet for all those raging hormones, sweaty palms, and he’s-so-cute-I’m-gonna-die crushes that do run rampant in high schools, Thomas opines that it is God, and only God, who can satisfy.
The scene she sets is full of imagined passion and indulgence: “He comes in His great love to rescue the one that He adores. He takes her into His arms and quiets every fear. He gives her the grain that feeds her emptiness. He puts a hand over her mouth when she begins to claim she’s not worthy. And then He sings. I picture the dance and being held close and God whispering in my ear His songs of love. Wow. I am swooning. God picks me up, holds me, and sings gentle love songs over me. He looks into my soul and sees the question. Before I can even ask it, He tells me He thinks I am beautiful. He feeds my starving soul with the food of his love.”
Yup, much like Spiderman, Thomas’s tale involves a weak female being saved by a suave protector, the stereotypical macho, but loving, guy. This scenario will surely cause many to bristle, but try to put that aside and imagine that the young woman has met the partner of her dreams and is, in fact, swooning. This flesh-and-blood mate exactly replicates the behavior of Thomas’s God. S/he buys her dinner, takes her dancing, and whispers flattering phrases into her open ears. Sadly, when she reports her good fortune at church, she does not win the approval she anticipates. Instead, the Morality Mavens issue fiery dictums about premarital virtue. So who can she turn to?
“You and I were made to dance with God. Another partner just won’t do,” Thomas exhorts. Her language is ardor-filled; God is My Beloved and The Beholder. “There will never be healthy love between a girl and a guy until the girl comes to rest and finds her being in the great love of God,” she continues. “God’s love gives wisdom in figuring out the man. God’s love lets us smile at the guy’s quirks, just as God smiles at ours.”
And the guys? Where do they learn to be tolerant of quirks and capable of negotiation, compromise, and folding laundry? Worse, how do they learn to compete with God, the perfect, always attentive, Great Guy?
Thomas fervently believes that God is The Man In Charge and has a role to play in enhancing self esteem, bridging communication gaps and enriching individual lives. She is confident that He can help teenage girls live better, more assured and productive lives.
Lord knows, teens do need help. Thomas’s descriptions match the angst cited by social workers who deal with youth; stories of girls who crave recognition but believe they need bigger breasts or fashion model bodies to get it, hit a very real raw nerve. So do stories of social isolation, mental illness, substance abuse, sexual violence, and family dysfunction. Angela Thomas and Christian publisher Thomas Nelson Inc. are right to be concerned. But one has to ask: Have the millions of dollars that are spent on self-help and physical enhancement triggered their interest? Does double-digit growth in the sale of books with religious or spiritual themes (as reported last summer by Publisher’s Weekly) correlate with the market they’ve created?
What’s more, should the motive of author or publisher matter to any of us?
Regardless of how you answer this, it is clear that combining self-help and religion—as Thomas has done—is nothing short of brilliant. Her message, that God knows our flaws and desires us anyway, is undeniably powerful. In addition, Thomas’s confessional style, her heartfelt admission that she was once a graceless ugly duckling, is potent proof that it is possible to triumph over adversity. In addition, her earnest depiction of God as someone with whom to share secrets and dreams, offers comfort to the weary, misunderstood and alienated. Is it any wonder that thousands are willing to pay hard-earned cash for her lectures, books, CDs and how-to guides? Thomas’s products tantalize audiences. As hope replaces reason, they fantasize that God will make them as beautiful, confident, and successful as He has made Angela Thomas.
“God has made us for Himself,” Thomas repeatedly intones. “The guy that you love is just a man. He may be your soul mate. He is possibly your best friend. He may be hunky and funny and surprising and strong, but he will never—not in a million years, even if he brings you flowers every day and keeps every promise ever written—be enough to fill your soul: “Those deep places inside you were made for God.”
That such advice can possibly help those who feel ugly or unlovable is hard to fathom. But as stadiums fill up to hear Thomas testify about God’s transformative powers, such skepticism may be beside the point.
Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, writer and activist from Park Slope. She is also the co-author of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism, St. Martin’s Press, 2001.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader