Until recent centuries, even celebrated personages might pass through a crowd unrecognized by anyone beyond the few who already knew them personally. Before photography and the printing press, great men were known for their words and deeds rather than for what they looked like. Portraiture was a costly adornment rarely seen outside a narrow circle of aristocrats or wealthy burghers. Mohammad, Charlemagne, Joan of Arc and Christopher Columbus all passed into history without leaving behind a portrait. Nor is there a contemporary likeness of any biblical figure, probably due to the strictures in Jewish law against graven images of any kind.
For most of human history, the only images in mass circulation were found on coins. These were typically of gods or monarchs, and in some cases they were one and the same. This is the subtext to Jesus' famous admonition to "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." A group of Pharisees had sought to entrap him with a seemingly innocent question as to whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the hated Roman occupiers. Jesus asked to see the money for the tax and was handed a coin bearing an image of the Emperor Tiberius, adorned with a laurel wreath to signify his divine status. To pay the tax was thus doubly offensive to pious Jews, because it involved handling coins they regarded as idolatrous. In his answer to the Pharisees, Jesus subtly conveyed his views on the emperor's divinity without needlessly jeopardizing himself by counseling people not to pay taxes to Rome.
The Roman gods were objectionable on many grounds. In contrast to the straight-laced God of the Jews, the denizens of the Roman pantheon were perhaps most noteworthy for their whims and airs and peccadilloes. In this respect, the Roman gods bear more than a casual resemblance to today's celebrities, who occupy an analogous position in popular culture. Celebrities operate in a realm in which lavish tribute is paid to them in return for trifling favors, and they are largely immune from the consequences of their bad behavior. Their fame has little to do with their words or deeds -- which are usually scripted by others in any case -- but rather is largely based on image. They must be young and beautiful, or at least entertaining. Celebrities are, of course, no more immortal than the Roman emperors who claimed to be gods, but modern technology now assures that their images will be preserved forever.
Why are celebrities worshipped like gods? For that matter, why are gods worshipped like gods? There may arise spontaneously within us a sense of awe or wonder at the mystery of creation. But we are mistaken in thinking that its source is unconnected to ourselves. That canny old Pharisee Paul traveled to Athens and saw temples there dedicated to every god imaginable. He told the locals that God does not live in shrines made by man, for "in him we live and move and have our being." If our own being arises out of God, to what person, object or ideal should we bow down in worship? The meanest hovel is as filled with God's presence as our most sacred shrine. His countenance shines no less upon the beggar than upon the saint. We are all created in God's image. If it is some representation of God we seek to worship, we might as well pray to ourselves.