I began reading The Way of Kings several months ago (shortly into the coronavirus quarantine) after having first read the Mistborn Trilogy. My initial impressions were that it reminded me of the Mistborn books in that it takes a bit to get into, but once you do, you’re in. Overall, I highly recommend both the Trilogy and The Way of Kings (it is the first in The Stormlight Archive series and the only one I’ve read so far). But, this isn’t a review of the book. Rather, it’s a reflection on one specific portion of the book: The Knights Radiant and The First Ideal.
The Knights Radiant were a military organization made of emotionally broken people. Their entire history isn’t necessary for the discussion here, but I’ll offer a brief summary for understanding. The Knights Radiant began with a duty to the people, using their abilities to protect and defend. By the time of The Way of Kings begins, they have abandoned that duty (for no known reason) and are no longer held in high regard. One particular character, at the request of his dying brother, has begun to delve into the history of the Radiants and, through him, we are introduced to the codes that the Radiants lived by. Over time, we find that these were known as The First Ideal.
When the codes of The First Ideal were first introduced, I immediately put a sticky-note to mark the page. They struck a chord with me, reminding me of ideals that should be upheld in a Christian life. Mind you, they’re not religious in nature (with regard to any sort of allegory towards existing religions, specifically Christianity). However, as demonstrated by characters in the story (particularly Dalinar and Kaladin), these ideals lead to lives that emulate the life of service demonstrated by Jesus Christ.
Life Before Death
“The Radiant seeks to defend life, always. He never kills unnecessarily, and never risks his own life for frivolous reasons. Living is harder than dying. The Radiant’s duty is to live.”
At first glance, this may seem out of touch with Jesus, who was doomed to be crucified and killed. However, one could argue that the meat of Christianity exists not in Jesus’s death alone but in Christ’s life. Though death is pointed to regularly throughout the New Testament as a hallmark of Christianity, everything in our world goes through death not for its own sake, but for the sake of rebirth: living even better than before. In Letters to Malcolm, CS Lewis asserts that death as the only path to true life exists “on every level of our life – in our religious experience, in our gastronomic, erotic, aesthetic, and social experience.” Thus, it isn’t death that it is the goal: it is life.
It stands to reason, then, that life is held in the utmost importance to God. All of creation attests to that, really. When God created the world, He gave it life and declared that life was good. Humans were given life and told to live it by stewarding the rest of creation and reproducing life. Think of that! Our first commandments were to protect the life that already existed and create new life! As humanity changed and new laws were needed, many of them were written to protect life. The taking of life was viewed as grievous and faced harsh punishment. Our duty continued to be living and protecting others as they lived.
Thinking to Nicodemus in John 3, questions of life, death, and rebirth were and are topics that frequently arise in response to the Gospel. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus, having been crucified and killed, came back alive and participated in very common, everyday things – eating, drinking, talking with others – rather than immediately ascending to be with the Father? Similarly, isn’t it interesting that we, having died to self and accepted saving faith in Christ, continue to participate in common, everyday things, rather than immediately moving into eternal life with God? Surely the fact that Jesus and we ourselves carry on living after spiritual transformation is a testament to our duty to live, not die.
Strength Before Weakness
“All men are weak at some time in their lives. The Radiant protects those who are weak, and uses his strength for others. Strength does not make one capable of rule; it makes one capable of service.”
During his life on earth, Jesus demonstrated strength, (willing) weakness, and service. In fact, much of the Jewish disbelief about Jesus being the Messiah stemmed from the fact that he demonstrated more humility than power, more service than ruling. This is a different type of strength, as identified in Jesus’s life and in the Knight’s Ideals. It isn’t important to be strong for strength’s sake or for power’s sake; strength is important only when used to help those less strong through service to them. Paul has famously asserted that in his very incarnation Jesus “emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity.” Had Jesus only every been born as a human, that would have been enough to represent this Ideal. However, he demonstrated the importance of service throughout his life.
The very first miracle Jesus performed – which could seem a little trite compared to the others – was one of almost a classical servanthood: he provided wine for wedding guests. From there, he moves on to heal and feed people at every turn. Numerous times throughout the Gospels, Jesus’s compassion is spoken of upon meeting someone with a disease or other problem. He regularly concerns himself with the welfare of those whom he has healed or who have followed him by ensuring that they are able to eat. The strength that Jesus demonstrated in these moments wasn’t that of your classically strong warrior, to be sure. However, it was a strength of purpose and power that allowed him to protect and assist those without through acts of service.
The ultimate testament to Jesus’s servanthood, of course, resides in his willing journey to the cross of crucifixion. In John 15, Jesus declares that “no one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends.” In fulfillment of the prophecies, Jesus allowed himself to be “despised and rejected,” “wounded, bruised, and chastised,” and “oppressed and afflicted” (Isaiah 53). All this He did for humanity, past, present, and future in a willing act of sacrifice and service. The Jews expected a mighty warrior, a king, who would save them all; what they got instead was a man willing to lay down his life to save them.
Journey Before Destination
“There are always several ways to achieve a goal. Failure is preferable to winning through unjust means. Protecting ten innocents is not worth killing one. In the end, all men die. How you lived will be far more important to the Almighty than what you accomplished.”
In an age where we all crave success stories, this last Ideal can seem particularly countercultural. Failure is most regularly viewed as something akin to moral failure rather than a process of growth. However, in this Ideal and in the life of Jesus, we see that the process is often more important than the end result. In Matthew 5, Jesus’s first public speaking after receiving the Holy Spirit and beginning his ministry, He speaks to the Law. For 20 verses, Jesus seeks to prove a point: the Law isn’t about merely adhering to a bunch of rules; it’s about having the right attitude and intent in your actions. This message is replayed on repeat as Jesus continues to address the Pharisees and Sadducees during his lifetime, calling them out as hypocrites for their strict adherence to laws but poor adherence to calls to love neighbors, bless widows and orphans, and lead others to the ways of righteousness. For these religious men, Jesus calls into question actions that aren’t backed in love.
Taking a different turn, let’s look at “how you lived will be far more important…than what you accomplished.” Here, we see echoes of Jesus and Paul’s teaching of faith over works and faith through works. God isn’t looking for us to accomplish anything in ourselves – He sent Jesus to do that for us. However, He remains interested in how we live that out. It’s been common for Christians to park themselves in one of two camps: faith is more important than works or work is more important than faith. They seem to difficult to reconcile. But in reality, they merge together quite nicely. In fact, I think looking at this argument third, after examining life and servanthood, makes the puzzle fit together perfectly. There is, in fact, quite a lot of importance in how we live. And, because Jesus accomplished what we couldn’t, how we live is one of the only things we can truly control.
Don’t misunderstand: we lack the tenacity to live well on our own strength. But again, Jesus has accomplished that for us. We just have to lean into it. Or, as CS Lewis puts it, “It is God who does everything. We, at most, allow it to be done to us.” Jesus provided the model for us. He lived 33 years of ordinary life, focusing on living well and using what strength God provided Him to help others. With his continued assistance, we walk in imitation of that model daily, matching our intentions to His, and every day becoming a more accurate Little Christ. That is our ultimate goal. If our goal is the destination of Heaven, we are on the wrong track.