The other day, “Who Let the Dogs Out” was on the radio.
For those of you who don’t remember, “Who Let the Dogs Out” (click at your own risk) was a song written by a Trinidadian group called the Baha Men that made it to the United States as part of the soundtrack for Rugrats in Paris: The Movie. It was probably the most popular song of the summer of 2000; in fact, it won a Grammy for Best Dance Recording in 2001. On one hand, this is somewhat understandable. The song is catchy, danceable, and insidiously easy to remember. On the other hand, it’s hard to understand why anyone enjoyed the song in the first place. It has the dubious distinction of being third on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 20 most annoying songs, and it is frequently cited as an example of the fact that quality and popularity are not always one and the same.
The Baha Men are also an example of a common phenomenon in popular music: the one hit wonder. Though the Trinidadian group released several other singles, none achieved the ubiquity or acclaim of their magnum opus. For better or worse, this means that the Baha Men will forever be defined by a song that repeatedly asks a rhetorical question about the provenance of dogs. I imagine that being a one hit wonder has to be frustrating. Instead of being trusted for your talent and potential, you are known for an isolated moment in your career. Even if you go on to grow and change, people define you in terms of something you did in the past.
Holy Week begins tomorrow. As such it is appropriate for us to take stock of our Lenten journeys. And when it comes to Lent (and other things), I suspect that many of us think we might be one hit wonders. We assume that what we have done in the past will forever shape our futures. If we have had a Lent that was particularly fruitful, for instance, we tend to have two responses. We either assume that this is the best we can do and say that we will try to have the same experience next year or we believe that there’s no way we could possibly experience the same level of fulfillment and regard this as the high water mark in our spiritual development. We must recognize, however, that we are called to grow in our relationship with God. When St. Paul tells us that we are called to walk in newness of life, we are meant to walk in a particular direction. We’re meant to be aware that we are moving toward a deeper and fuller relationship with the God who created and redeemed us. I pray that this Lent has been a time of spiritual growth for you, but more importantly, I pray that you will continue to grow in your awareness of God’s love even as this season of renewal comes to a close. Above all, I pray that you will remember that in God’s eyes, you will never be a one hit wonder.
Yesterday, I spent my afternoon off watching The Godfather, which is almost universally celebrated as one of the greatest movies of all time. Widely regarded as Francis Ford Coppola’s most influential work, The Godfather comes from an era when movie directors were accorded a kind of demigod status. During the 1970s, directors were so intent on articulating their vision for a film that they controlled every aspect of the filmmaking experience, from the color of a costume to the inflection in a line of dialogue. Coppola was no exception and used his considerable influence very successfully. One of the most striking elements of The Godfather is that in spite of its length, there are no extraneous scenes; every element of the film appears to have been carefully crafted to be a crucial part of the story the director is trying to tell.
Nevertheless, there are a few indispensable moments in The Godfather that are completely serendipitous. My favorite example comes from the wedding sequence at the beginning of the movie. As revelers celebrate the wedding of Don Corleone’s daughter, the godfather (memorably and ably portrayed by Marlon Brando) is in his office, listening as people request favors. The parade of supplicants makes it clear to the audience that futures hang in the balance based on the whims of this one powerful man, that one should not trifle with Don Corleone. As the party continues outside, Don Corleone’s son Michael (Al Pacino) arrives with his girlfriend, who spots a powerfully-built man practicing a speech as he waits outside the Don’s office. Michael’s girlfriend (Diane Keaton) asks who the “scary guy” is: Michael identifies him as Luca Brasi and tells a harrowing story that makes it very clear that one should not trifle with Luca. But when Luca finally arrives in Don Corleone’s office, he stumbles nervously over the speech he had been practicing. The message is clear: even this strong, “scary guy” who is feared by many is terrified of the powerful Don Corleone.
The scene between the godfather and Luca Brasi perfectly encapsulates what Coppola was trying to convey in the opening sequence: Don Corleone has power to make even powerful men fear him. The best part about this scene, however, is that it was totally accidental. Evidently, the actor who played Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) was so nervous about doing a scene with Marlon Brando that he stumbled over his line in the first take. Instead of reshooting, Coppola recognized the brilliance of the mistakenly reworked scene and added shots of Montana practicing Luca’s speech. By being open to Montana’s serendipitous mistake, Coppola created a scene that articulated his vision and propelled Luca Brasi from “generic goombah” to one of the more memorable small roles in film history.
Lent is a time when Christians act a bit like film directors from the 1970s. We imagine that we can control every element of our spiritual lives, that by making sure that we accomplish everything on our Lenten checklist we can have an authentic experience of God. We say to ourselves: “I will fast from chocolate, attend church every Sunday, read a Lenten devotional, and say morning prayer every day, and then I will become closer to God.” Unfortunately, spirituality does not work that way; it is not prescriptive. I’m not suggesting that we should not engage in Lenten disciplines or go to church every Sunday; after all, the only reason Coppola was able to take advantage of Montana’s mistake is because he was so devoted to articulating his vision. Rather, I am suggesting that we should not imagine that we can control our experience of God. I think this might be part of what Jesus was getting at when he insisted that God is the God of the living and not of the dead. We cannot presume that our experience of God will be the same every time we engage in some kind of devotional activity. We serve and worship a dynamic God whom we experience differently depending on where we are in our lives. It’s Richard Rohr who writes that the greatest obstacle to our next experience of God is our most recent experience of God. And so we must be open to the unexpected movement of the Holy Spirit. We must be willing to take advantage of what might seem like a mistake and transform it into a serendipitous opportunity to connect to the living God.