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 stripes 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
“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 movie scenes occurs in William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. It is a comedic fencing duel between two expert swordsmen—Inigo Montoya (played by Mandy Patinkin) and the ‘Man in Black’ (Cary Elwes). Unbeknownst to either fencer, 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. Under-estimating one another’s prowess, both decide to even the match by fighting with their left-hand.
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.
Inigo finally exclaims:
Inigo Montoya: “I admit it, you are better than I am.”
Man in Black: “Then why are you smiling?”
Inigo Montoya: “Because I know something you don’t know.
Man in Black: “And what is that?”
Inigo Montoya: “I… am not left-handed.”
Switching his sword to his dominant hand, the tide of battle quickly turns in Inigo’s favor. At least until the Man in Black makes the same revelation, and the ‘fight is on’ once again.
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. (Watch movie-clip here.)
The Danger of One-Handed Swordplay
The writer of the book of Chronicles reveals a similar strength in army of King David of Israel. One reason his warriors were so devastating 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 one hand was injured, they could quickly switch to the other. If the angle was wrong for a right-handed shot, they could take it with their left. Their holistic preparation gave them a distinct advantage over enemies trained only in their dominant hand.
I hate to push the metaphor too far, but I suspect that our current failures in connecting faith and culture suffer from a certain ‘single-handed’ limitation. Few institutions in modern society prepare men and women for holistic approaches to life. Filmmaking, sports, and academic careers demand a single-minded focus from an early age. Our parents and teachers recognize our ‘dominant’ traits while we’re 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 most pronounced in the realms of faith formation and culture making. Educational institutions, churches, and filmmaking communities all long to shape society for good, but often from drastically different perspectives. Our efforts to influence culture often lead to demonizing and scapegoating one another. (See articles on René Girard.) The most striking lesson of Sue and my six-year ‘missionary journey’ to Hollywood is the depth of heartache many filmmakers carry due to the rejection and misunderstanding they’ve experienced in their interactions with faith communities and faith leaders. (Just ask Darren Aronoksky if you don’t believe me.)
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 formation. 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 those 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 Inigo Montoya devoted to expertise in BOTH faith formation and culture making. Men and women who “understand the times and know what to do,” namely, 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.
So far the greatest beneficiary of these conversation has been me. My friendships with filmmakers have transformed me in ways I could have never 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 my own 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.