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Faith: Marianne Williamson Is Full of It

She is the high priestess of pop religion. Millions buy her books and tapes. Fans worship her. As for critics, she warns, "Laugh at all this at your emotional peril."

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    In a matter of hours, Marianne Williamson will take the stage in cascading taupe and have 1,000 disciples eating out of her delicate hands. She will ask them to pray for peace, for prosperity, for the deliverance of a prostitute. She will urge them to save America from spiritual bankruptcy, and they will nod and murmur and consider her call to action. A young man will stand to ask advice about a friend and sit down smiling after she proclaims his attitude "enabling."

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    She will hold the lecture at Los Angeles' Wilshire Ebell Theater, where she is a frequent headliner. But right now, the wildly popular feel-good guru is tucked in the corner of a couch, and the voice that can be as seductive as a clear stream is gaining force and intensity. First one finger starts wagging, then both nicely muscled arms are in the air. Williamson doesn't like questions about her power as a priestess of the New Age, doesn't much like being questioned about her path to enlightenment. Skepticism is met with run-on sentences, cynicism with a silent stare. "Laugh at all of this at your emotional peril," she warns in her 1993 book A Woman's Worth, which spent 19 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.

    "See, I find it interesting. I find that I'm in the only career that I know of [where] the more successful you are, the more suspicious you are," the 45-year-old Williamson says. "Like I have these slavish followers. In any other field, if you've got a large audience, people would say you must be good at it. I have an audience. Barbra Streisand has an audience. I don't have followers."

    Maybe so. But the millions of people who buy Williamson's books and cassettes, the thousands who attend her monthly lectures on love, relationships, or whatever is on her mind, speak of her with an adoration bordering on worship. Those who "get" her, revere her. At her behest, they clasp hands with the strangers seated beside them. They close their eyes in meditation, leaving purses and packages unattended. On the eve of the Fourth of July, they sing "God Bless America," and they do it in key. They sign up for her tape-of-the-month club; scan her Web site (www.marianne.com); and make religious pilgrimages with her to India, Stonehenge, and Ireland. As Jim Muccione, a college administrator and devotee, explains before one of Williamson's summer lectures in her home base of Los Angeles, "She's a warrior of the heart -- I'm the pilgrim, and I consider her a teacher."

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