Reimagining Faith and Culture One Story at a Time
What Inigo Montoya taught me about world-shaping leadership
Educators, filmmakers, ministers, and leaders of all kinds share a common desire to influence society for good. What we lack is a common language for understanding one another’s perspectives.
by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor (2/19/2014)
“These were the men who came to David while he was banished from the presence of Saul. They were among the warriors who helped him in battle. They were able to shoot arrows or to sling stones with both the right and the left. Warriors who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.”
-1 Chronicles 12
One of my all-time favorite movies scenes occurs in The Princess Bride. It’s a comedic duel between two expert swordsmen—Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and the Dread Pirate Roberts (Cary Elwes). Unbeknownst to either swordsman, both duelists are fighting with a secret: each spent thousands of hours mastering swordplay not only with their right-hand, but also with their left.
As the duel builds to its hilarious conclusion, the combatants begin to realize that expertise in single-handed swordplay is completely inadequate preparation for battle with a true master. In turns out that, becoming a two-handed warrior is essential to achieving your life mission—whether that mission is piracy, true love, or revenge.
The writer of the book of Chronicles reveals a similar strength in King David’s army. One reason they were so devastatingly effective in battle was their ambidextrous fighting abilities. “They were able to shoot arrows or to sling stones with both the right and the left.” If the angle was wrong for a bowshot with one hand, they could take it with the other. If one hand was occupied or injured, they could quickly switch to the other. Their holistic preparation gave them an advantage over enemies trained only in their dominant hand.
The Danger of One-Handed Swordplay
I hate to push a metaphor too far, but I suspect that many of our current failures in connecting faith and culture suffer from a similar ‘single-handed’ myopia. Few institutions in modern society prepare men and women for holistic approaches to life. Filmmaking, sports, and academic careers demand single-minded focus from an early age. Our parents and teachers recognize our ‘dominant’ traits when we are quite young and set us on a path that all but guarantees we become proficient in a very narrow range of human experience.
This one-handed approach is perhaps even most pronounced in the realms of faith formation and culture making. Educational institutions, churches, and the filmmaking communities all long to shape society for good, but often from drastically different perspectives. Our common desire to influence the world, devoid of any common understanding of one another’s perspectives often leads to the kind of demonizing and scapegoating predicted by thinkers such as René Girard. The most striking lesson of Sue and my five-year missionary journey to Hollywood is the depth of heartache in our most talented filmmakers of faith because of the rejection and misunderstanding they experience in their interactions with faith communities and faith leaders.
Faith-Formation AND Culture-Making
This tension often spills over into our leadership roles as well. Leaders adept at culture making—whether in Hollywood or the Ivy League—are rarely trained in the disciplines of faith building. Leaders skilled in faith formation—whether in a local congregation or an international relief agency—are rarely trained in the art of culture making. It is my firm belief that this dichotomy not only creates glaring blind spots in our leadership, it also robs us of a vibrant conversation with other leaders from whom we have the most to learn.
For leaders interested in effecting broad societal transformation, this dichotomy is even more devastating. Like Inigo Montoya or David’s army, the ability to fight with either hand is often a matter of life or death. And I am fairly confident that we are facing such a life or death moment for our society. Educators, filmmakers, ministers, may share a common goal. What we lack is a common language for understanding one another’s perspectives. I believe that our only hope for leading our society out of our current cultural dead-end is our willingness to learn one another’s stories and the stories that shape us as a culture.
An Enriching Conversation that Sharpens
So I named this website Two Handed Warriors in hope that it would become an ongoing conversation between filmmakers, educators, philanthropists, and faith leaders who aspire to become modern-day versions of the Dread Pirate Roberts devoted to expertise in BOTH faith formation and culture making. Men and women who “understand the times” and therefore know that redefining faith and culture one story at a time is our best hope for accomplishing our respective missions. Three years later, I feel as if it is only just beginning to reach that goal.
And so far the greatest beneficiary is me. My friendships with filmmakers have transformed me in ways I could never have imagined. Their stories (those they live and those they tell) are so radically different from those of any college educator or spiritual formation professional I know, they help me see life from radically different perspectives. And my students in the university can tell the difference as well. I have used Academy Award-winning films in my teaching for over 20 years. Now, I cringe when I think of how poorly I understood what I was teaching. Not that I have become an expert, but the new depth of understanding into story I’ve gained in Hollywood has taken my teaching in spiritual formation and theology (two disciplines rooted in story) to an entirely new level. One of my students recently wrote me:
“[W]hat you are doing with this class is phenomenal. I don’t think I have ever looked as deeply into myself as I did for your course. It gave me an entirely different perspective of movies and a greater understanding of their underlying worldview. Thank you for the soul-searching this course has awoken in me. God truly does send us guides through unusual mediums.”
None of this would have been possible without the awkward opportunity to learn to fight with my left hand provided me by these rich life-giving relationships with men and women in the film and television industry. I will never come close to mastering culture making, but it has convinced me that I at least need to stay in conversation with those can. And to broaden that conversation no matter how awkward and uncomfortable it can be.
King David’s son, Solomon, grew up in a warrior’s household. He learned first-hand that swordsmen attain their mastery only where sparks fly. He later write, “As iron sharpens iron, so one friend sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). My dream is that in helping each other master the art of two-handed swordplay we will not only foster transformational films, schools, and congregations, we will also continue to forge lifelong friendships.
PS After I first posted this page, a number of readers mentioned Gandalf, the wizard warrior of Lord of the Rings, as a notable example of Two-Handed warfare. In The Fellowship of the Ring, the wizard prevails over a Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dum, not merely through mastery of the sword, but by taking two-handed warfare to a whole new level with his staff. (Film clip below.)
Up until this moment one might question whether or not having a wizard along on their journey was really necessary. After all, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legalas were every bit as skilled with their weapons as Gandalf was with his. However, by taking up his staff with his other hand Gandalf unleashes a supernatural power beyond anything his companions ever imagined.
I suspect that anyone taking up the mantle of twenty-first century culture making will contend against far greater forces than Balrogs. My dream is that Two Handed Warriors might help train at least a few culture-making Gandalfs who can unleash supernatural power for good.
 Reiner, Rob, William Goldman, Andrew Scheinman, Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest, et al. 2001. The princess bride. Santa Monica, Calif: MGM Home Entertainment.
 Osborne, Barrie, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, et al. 2002. The Lord of the rings. The fellowship of the ring. [Los Angeles, CA]: New Line Home Entertainment.