There are absurdities aplenty when it comes to our adulation of celebrities, but few in recent memory have made as many headlines as this one: A Canadian dentist named Michael Zuk paid $31,000 last month for one of John Lennon's teeth. (Lennon had the half-rotted molar extracted 40 years ago and gave it to his housemaid as a present.)
When it comes to celebrity memorabilia, nothing seems out of bounds:
In March, a lock of Justin Bieber's hair fetched $40,668 on eBay.
In other hairy things, a set of James Brown's hair curlers went on the block in 2008. Alas, it fetched less than $400.
There have been more than two dozen online auctions of used Britney Spears chewing gum, some fetching upward of $14,000.
In 2006, Star Trek star William Shatner raised charity money by selling a kidney stone for $25,000.
"Some people desire to have a personal link, however absurd, with power and fame and something glorious and glamorous," says Temple University religion professor Lucy Bregman. "It's a form of magical thinking, something human beings are never likely to outgrow."
Elvis Presley was hip to this. During the 1970s, he'd regularly keep a pile of white towels on stage, use them to mop his sweaty brow, then throw them to the audience as some kind of damp blessing.
Is investing so much devotion -- and money -- in a tooth all that absurd?
Is it less absurd to make a pilgrimage to Sri Lanka to pay respect to a tooth believed to have belonged to the Buddha? Or to send on tour a bone fragment taken from St. John Neumann, whose remains rest in Northern Liberties?
Zuk's actions aren't all that preposterous, says Emory University's Gary M. Laderman, if we look at our culture of celebrity worship as just that -- worship.
"We have instituted a religious culture around celebrities," says Laderman, author of Sacred Matters: Celebrity Worship, Sexual Ecstasies, the Living Dead, and Other Signs of Religious Life in the United States (New Press, 2010).
"It doesn't just function like a religion. It's not a pseudo-religion," he adds. It "is a genuine religious phenomena."
Celebrity-talk is rife with religiosity, Laderman suggests.
Take celebrity itself. In the middle ages it designated a "solemn rite or ceremony."
We speak of screen idols and singers as divas -- Latin for goddess -- and praise their performances as divine.
Marquee stars and prophets alike entrance people, sometimes to the point of madness. That quality, charisma -- from the Greek, "a divine gift" -- resides in George Clooney and St. Francis of Assisi, Sean "Diddy" Combs and Moses, Beyonce and St. Teresa of Avila.
Laderman maintains that the closest historical parallel to celebrity worship is "the early Christian history of the cult of saints." It was a tradition in which relics, sacred objects used to connect with them, played a central part.
Zuk, 49, doesn't exactly worship Lennon. He doesn't make obeisance to him by praying to his tooth. But the dentist does ascribe to it great symbolic power.
"Lennon was one of those extremely important people in history . . . [and] he has such an attraction to people that anything related to him is a big deal," he says from his dental office in Red Deer, Alberta.
Zuk says objects that belonged to Lennon crystalize his ideals, including "his activism for world peace."
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