Some years ago the pop idol Madonna provided fodder for gossip columnists by demanding that she be provided with an unused toilet seat for her dressing room at each stop on a world concert tour. According to press accounts, her contract with tour promoters stipulated that the toilet seat be wrapped in plastic and disposed of immediately after the concert so it couldn't be auctioned off on eBay. At first glance, it's hard to determine whether this latter requirement reflects the singer's megalomania or the current market for celebrity memorabilia, if not a bit of both.
Our cultural obsession with celebrities is regarded as a distinctly latter-day phenomenon, although it bears more than a casual resemblance to the veneration of saints in the Middle Ages, right down to the traffic in saintly relics. Madonna herself, having exhausted a variety of "bad girl" poses during her career, recast herself as something of a religious figure in her own right. She became a student of the Kabala, even to the extent of denying reports that she might end her involvement with this mystical Jewish sect so her kids could celebrate Christmas. At a recent concert stop in Rome, she had herself "crucified" on a mirrored cross while wearing a crown of thorns. The Vatican's advance protests did little to dissuade 70,000 local fans from flocking to her concert, where they were also treated to a robed musician playing a shofar, the ram's horn that traditionally summons Jewish worshippers during the High Holy Days.
It seems oddly quaint now that John Lennon once shocked the world by daring to suggest the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ. The issue had less to do with the accuracy of his statement than with Lennon's presumption in uttering the Lord's name in the same breath as that of his pop music group. Given the near-religious frenzy that greeted the Beatles' every appearance in those days, his observation was understandable. It may even have been apt -- certainly more so than anyone cared to acknowledge at the time.
Whether its object is sacred or profane, the impulse to worship is deeply embedded in the human psyche. Its origins may lie in the small child's tendency to idolize his parents. For Freud, religion was neurotic wish fulfillment arising from infantile feelings of dependency that were projected onto an omnipotent deity. We naturally defer to those we regard as richer, smarter, better looking, more talented or otherwise more powerful than ourselves. By degrees we may inflate the qualities we admire in others beyond all human proportion, effectively denying our commonality with them and disempowering ourselves in the process.
This tendency is never more evident than when we ascribe godly or even godlike qualities to another. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky writes of the disillusionment that sets in among Father Zossima's followers when this saintly figure proves to be corruptible in the most elemental sense. A crowd gathers immediately after his death, expecting some miracle; instead, they are confronted by the sickening spectacle of his rapidly putrefying corpse. In one swift stroke, an exemplary life has been negated by the stench of death.
The Old Testament commandment regarding idolatry is routinely flouted in our sacred rituals, as we genuflect before the objects of our worship. The stricture against bowing down to graven images applies not just to stone idols but to any representation of an object in creation. We forget that we ourselves are created in God's image. To make this point, Jesus quoted from a verse in Psalms that reads, "You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you." If indeed we are gods, then in bowing down to another we deny ourselves.