Marianne Williamson: Who Is She & Why Do We Need Her Now?

Marianne Williamson teaches the miracles of the Son of God, but she has unwittingly become the Daughter of the Press. America's latest Mary Magdalene is Mary Media-lene.

The press has pandered to her celebrity apostles and her best-sellina book, Return to Loving (HarperCollins), without giving her the praise she deserves for her thankless hard and unglamorous work for dying AIDS and cancer patients and the homeless on L.A.'s streets. But Jesus never received such good press as Williamson. Of course, the world was a smaller place in 37 A.D. Certainly, the crowds who cheered Jesus' death sentence and jeered at him as he hung from the Cross were far fewer than the combined readers of Vanity Fair, the New York Times, the L.A. Times, USA Today, Newsweek, and all the talk shows that have covered Marianne Williamson's ascent to Mount Olympus. That is not counting the thousands to whom she preaches at her lectures in Los Angeles and New York, nor those she sees at her Centers for Living. Before discussing who she is and why so many need her, we need to ask why the press, which has covered her so feverishly, has not really asked these questions itself. Increasingly, the greater part of the media is built around entertainment, closely allied to public relations. This means the reverential treatment of anything and any one connected in any way to stars. The press, in their desperation not to miss the chance to mention as many stars as possible, have rushed madly like the Gadarene Swine over the cliff of hyper-celebrity to provide Ms. Williamson's star-studded credentials. This involves copying Williamson's gilded Rolodex into the articles, which we have all seen. Often this is not the fault of the writers themselves but the result of the demands of the marketplace. Still, it makes for boring coverage.

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Yes, Williamson did indeed conduct the marriage of Liz Taylor. Yes, Cher, Richard Gere, Kim Basinger, Michael Jackson, Bette Midler, Shirley MacLaine, and Croesian tycoons such as David Geffen and Barry Diller (among others), may indeed be her apostles who help her raise money for her charities. But far more interesting are the 750,000-plus readers who have bought her book, the millions who have bought her taped lectures and the thousands who attend her seminars.

What is Marianne Williamson?

Williamson's attitudes toward established churches are precisely those of Jesus toward the establishment of his time. Williamson is far more interesting a phenomenon and far more intelligent a character than the reborn Christian preachers like the Bakkers and the Swaggarts.

But is she just a new cult rising to horrifying heights of hypocrisy and vulgarity before crashing like a corrupt savings & loan (a la Bakkers) or a flaky genocide (ala Jonestown)? She is in fact very different and more important historically than the Swaggarts and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. They were simply conglomeurateurs--brazen hypocrites with bad taste, ripe for the entertaining scandals that felled them. Clearly, they had nothing whatsoever to do with the austerity and morality of early Christian teaching: Jesus' whole strength was that he disdained bureaucracy and hierarchy. But what about today's organized religions?

The book Megatrends 2, specifically predicted a move away from organized religions to a New Age spiritualism. They were correct: The organized religions, Christian and Jewish, would be sensible not to dismiss Williamson's levity. Whether or not we like her, her rebellious irreverence has far more in common with Jesus Christ than, say, the religion of a prince of the Church, such as Cardinal O'Connor, or the princes of Judaism, such as Rabbi Schneerson of the Lubavitchers. Their robes, hierarchies, titles and residences have alienated them not only from this generation (which we will discuss below), but also from the historical Christ and his teachings.

"Religion," Williamson explains to me as we sip tea in the Regency Hotel in Manhattan, "is like a map. The route isn't important. It's the destination that matters. Let's face it: organized dogmatic religion hasn't been a great gift to mankind. The divisions among religions are as absurd as the divisions among nations. When God created the world, he didn't draw a line between Canada and America."

Williamson teaches a book called A Course in Miracles, which Jesus was supposed to have dictated to a psychiatrist in the Seventies. She preaches the limitless power of the individual (which she calls the "Self") to improve, to conquer hate, falsity, and self-pity (which she calls the "Ego"), and to love. She teaches that there is a "miracle" in every individual, just as there was in Jesus: "The miracle is a shift in our own thinking: the willingness to keep our own hearts open."

Refreshingly, she does not blame all wrongs on parents and society; she discourages any whining. Though Williamson uses the imagery of Christianity and Judaism, she is as much inspired by Eastern religion. The attraction of her teaching is clear: the power of the individual to conquer all without the help of stodgy institutions that are out of touch with modern generations.

The stars have been useful in spreading the message, but have at the same time undermined it. A religious teacher is utterly discredited by any materialism (though Williamson, I might add, is as ascetic and hardworking in her care for AIDS patients and as devoted to the homeless as any saint). There is no greater materialism, egotism, immorality, or superficiality than the famous and rich of Hollywood. Therefore, Williamson's star buddies are not a help to her credibility. She knows it, too. Like most of us, I find the involvement of Hollywood stars in a religion distasteful. I ask Williamson if stars need moral regeneration more than anyone else. It is a question that outrages her:

"That's an arrogant perception! The fact that people in Hollywood are open to what I teach is not because they're more desperate than anyone else, but because they're more touched by it. That's not their weakness. It's their strength!"

Yet in the age of her hyper-intensive, mass-media fame, we could hardly expect a preacher to begin teaching in rags either on the Mount of olives or in the Rockies. No one would notice. Furthermore, the idea of stars involved with religion is not irreligious: Moses, Mohammed, John the Baptist, and Jesus were stars. The Pope's sermons reach us by television and satellite. And the Messiah: the greatest star of all. Thus, whether we approve or not, when the Messiah arrives (or returns), he or she will be heralded on CBS News by Dan Rather and interviewed by Jay Leno and Arsenio Hall.

Who is Marianne Williamson?

America's Mary Magdalene is a 39year-old single mother (the father of her daughter, India, is a secret), an excabaret-singing Jew from Texas now living in Los Angeles. The reason for her appeal? Wit, irreverence, experience and sensuality on one hand; patience, diligence, austerity, and caring on the other. She should be on the stage...but then, she is on the stage. The heart of her message is her return from the depths and delights of debauchery to an austere plateau of sanctity. This is something her followers understand: when she talks about sex, swinging, drugs, and one-night stands, it is sincere; she has done it--and we know it. And we like the fact that she has done it. She has been to the edge and she came back for us.

In the flesh, Williamson is a tiny, highly charged packet of sexuality. In her lectures, she brings all the excitement, comedy, and passion of sex to religion: not for nothing is she a former singer. She uses the language and attraction of sensuality to hold an audience. Her charisma is sexual and humorous. Watching her perform is more like wrestling naked with Venus than kneeling with the saints.

Marianne Williamson is the man-eater who became a fisher of men. As she writes in her book, "Whatever sounded outrageous, I wanted to do. And usually, I did it." She sums up her movement like this: "We are a prodigal-son generation. We've done the dark side. We're ready to move on.

"The true religious experience should be passion, and passion cannot be organized, the most creative spark within us is the true religious." Williamson sees both sex and religion as practical parts of everyday life. She is not afraid of either.

"Can promiscuous sex contain love?" I ask.

"Absolutely. Usually, people associate promiscuity with quantity, but that really has nothing to do with it. If there's love, a genuine soul connection, then it is not promiscuous. On the other hand, you can know someone for years and have sex many times, but it can still be promiscuous if it doesn't contain love!"

"Do you feel sorry for the new generation that missed the drugs and sex?"

"Yes, they've been robbed of something. The Nineties will be interesting. Although we no longer want to jump into bed with a stranger, the air's beginning to crackle with genuine romantic energy. So everything will be fine."

Why do we need her now?

The answer lies in the identity of The Wilting Flower Children. Who are they? At the Town Hall in Manhattan, where Williamson lectures monthly, the crowd is silent, eyes glued to the little lectern on the huge stage. A tiny, auburn-haired woman, dressed in a pink designer jacket and floral skirt, bounces across the stage on huge high heels. The crowd applauds heartily.

Seated in the front row, I stare up at her in the spotlight. She announces that Judy Collins will begin proceedings. Judy Collins? The prophet retreats again (heels a-clicking). Judy Collins, an aging hippie in a floppy hat, sings "Amazing Grace" unaccompanied, her voice rising up to fill the auditorium. The crowd knows the words of this pop hymn and sings along. Who are these people? The song ends and Collins, another celebrity apostle, says: "The first concert I ever gave was in this hall in 1965!" More applause.

So there is our answer. What becomes of the broken-hearted? They do not go to church: the vicar might claim to have been a "groovy swinger" but he would not kid this crowd that he was one of them. Whatever happened to them since they heard"Amazing Grace"? Marianne Williamson.

Her lecture is masterful. The audience of well-dressed couples, gay and straight, who have filled the Town Hall, receive her jokes with rapt hilarity. They break into fervent applause on cue, laughing loudly in the aisles. For example, she explains that Christ is "a juicy story." There are others just as good, but it is a valuable symbol: "The problem of Jesus isn't as simple as coming up with another word. Jesus is his name. There's no point pretending His name is Herbert." (Applause for two minutes!)

Her message is not strictly Christian: "You've committed no sins," she says, "just mistakes." The two thousand receive her more familiar bon mots like old favorites. For example, why do some people attract losers? "It's not that you attract them," she says, "it's that you give them your phone number." This cocktail of irreverence and humor delights the punters.

The lecture (cost: $10, but no one is turned away if they cannot pay) is an hour long performance of consummate theater. Williamson speaks in rolling Texan one minute; little-girl American-pie the next. She is as sassy as Magdalene in one sentence; as sacred as the Virgin Mary in another. Sometimes, her voice is so entrancing that it carries us away.

In the middle of her lectures, Williamson will pause in midstream and suddenly call out her swan song: "Is there anyone out there who hasn't suffered enough?" No one answers. They have suffered enough to need Marianne Williamson. But why now?

First, the babies of the baby boom have reached middle-age, when children and mortgages have captured all but the most elusive. "But don't your audiences tend to be 35 and older?" I ask her.

"Younger people tend to know more."

Second, Williamson fills a void left by the isolationism of established Christianity and Judaism. That is the essential core of her appeal. She teaches love and common sense as all religions do, but she does so in the irreverent language of the Seventies. Her messages stem mostly from the Bible and the traditions of the old religions, save her definition of sin. Furthermore, Williamson does not believe in death as such: "It is just a matter of switching frequencies. He's not on Channel 11; he's on Channel 23!" she tells a man who mourned the death of his estranged father. Not surprisingly, the son is delighted with the news.

Third, we are in the Nineties: Williamson also teaches the belief that something vital and elemental will happen at the end of the millennium: "The spiritual revolution of the Nineties is a new uprising of people who eschew labels. There will be bursts of darkness and life. Birth is always violent."

Many of the people I spoke to believed that there would be some upheaval at the end of this thousand years.

Fourth, political despair is another reason for Williamson's meteoric rise: politics is less than ever providing an outlet for people's frustrations. Bush is increasingly despised as the only possible President in a field of scorned candidates; Clinton is trusted by few voters; Perot is the hope of a third party in a two-party system. It is no wonder that so many are turning to Williamson's psychic arming of the individual. She herself, as a self declared "leftist," has contempt for much of the hypocrisy of politicians:

"When people worry about a political candidate because he's been in therapy. I worry when the President has not been in therapy. And for the Republicans to take a holier-than-thou attitude to the sex lives of Clinton and the Democrats is disgusting!"

Williamson's success is a reflection of hopelessness both at I home and abroad. For many, the recession represents the end of the American dream at home. For so many of the baby boomers, the glamourous idealistic careers that they expected never happened; now at 40-years-old, they are in debt, too. And there is no outlet abroad anymore either: the American century of international domination is over. The Cold War defeated not only the collapsed Evil Empire; it has bankrupted America as well.

The end of the Cold War is not only a matter of power. It is also a question of values: a whole generation was taught that Red Russia was evil. Evil might be defined as Communism. In America's anti-Communist foreign policy, there was also a morality for home. Now that is g,one too. What is evil? What is good? Whom would you rather ask: the local vicar or witty pretty Ms. Williamson?

Williamson meanwhile is charming and preaching her way to ever greater numbers of disciples. Her book is nonfiction best-seller on the New York Times list, and her new book, The Healing of America, is set to sell for $3 million. Americans are hungry for spiritual sustenance; Williamson the brilliant comedian and her celestial host of seraphic stars will provide the sassy, sexy, and common-sensical repast they need. And she is needed by her followers, the poor, and those dying of AIDS. She is doing admirable work that no one else wants to do. We should salute her for her industry, her charity, her wit, and her lack of sanctimonious nonsense, but not for her celebrity friends. For whatever reason, millions of contemporary Americans need Mary Williamson. She certainly cannot be blamed for the spiritual vacuum which she is filling. She is simply providing the goods to America, and very entertainingly at that. But Americans should look into their hearts to ask why they need her so badly.

As she shouts from her podium to the attentive crowd at her lecture: "Hey! Get off the Cross. WE NEED THE WOOD!"

PHOTOS (BLACK & WHITE): WLLIAMSON, WITH DAUGHTER, INDBA, (ABOVE, AND AT WORK IN ONE OF HER MANY CHARITABLE ROLES (RIGHT).

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Marianne Williamson

BY SIMON SEBAG MONTEFIORE

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