*(This post contains spoilers for “Mistborn: The Final Empire,” “The Well of Ascension,” and “Mistborn: Secret History.” There are some fairly non-spoilery references to the second era of Mistborn novels.)
I’m currently reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series for the third time. I think I read the first book when it was just called “Mistborn.” In the series, as in Brandon’s other books, belief and religion are consistent themes. Though faith does not have as central a role in Mistborn as it does in Elantris or Warbreaker, the importance of belief and the power of religion in people’s lives are driving questions for one of the protagonists, Kelsier. Those questions then set the course for future events–both in the immediate and centuries later–following Kelsier’s death.
In “The Final Empire,” Kelsier is deeply interested in the staying power of religion, especially those that lasted a few centuries into the Lord Ruler’s reign. If the Lord Rules was brutally persecuting all religious sects, what made some hold on longer than others? Kelsier learns about speaking truth to power and the ways that beliefs rooted in hope in an alternate world give people real power. He comes to know how a single religious-martyr figure can awaken people into a new state of being and call them to action to fight for the alternate reality that they have only dreamed of before. Ultimately, Kelsier gives his own life for the cause. He becomes the sacrificial death that ignites revolution.
For a while now I have read the Kelsier story in “The Final Empire” as a take on the story of early Christianity. I’m pretty sure that is not the case at all, at least in the mind of Sanderson, but what can I say except that I spent three-and-a-half years at seminary. Stuff happens.
The take is that the messianic figure is not necessarily divine nor even a sinless human but is actually benevolent and seeks the healing of humanity by instituting righteousness and justice for the poor and the oppressed. Sounds like your standard progressive Christian take on the Christ story, yeah?
I think the rub of this take is that Kelsier isn’t simply imperfect. He’s deeply flawed. He’s rightly concerned with justice for the skaa, but he’s a little…murdery. Also, as Vin so helpfully calls out, Kelsier basically is a nobleman. I.e., unlike Jesus of the Christian gospels, Kelsier does not seek to save the poor by identifying with them.
Also Kelsier’s arms are covered in scars from his time of punishment at the Pits of Hathsin. This experience is the catalyst that leads him from a life of self-centered thievery to other-centered thievery and revolution. Early Christians read this old verse from the prophet Isaiah as being about their savior: “The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5b, NRSV). Yet Kelsier earned these scars through actual lawlessness, rather than righteous resistance to unjust laws.
While that contrast between the two figures used to close the door on the Mistborn-Gospels discourse (yes, I just said that), it currently really, really excites me. Because while Jesus of the Bible is many things–compassionate, righteous, steadfast–he doesn’t really have a personality. Like sure God took on flesh in the Incarnation, but he wasn’t flawed, at least according to traditional theology. The idea of a flawed savior is frightening yet terribly attractive. I think it also testifies to how the lives of ordinary people can take on a much greater significance for those looking for something to believe in.
The other aspect of the story that makes “The Final Empire” feel like a take on early Christianity is “Kelsier’s” appearances to his followers. Though this is not Kelsier but the kandra, OreSeur, who has consumed his body (though for a dead man, Kelsier clings on tightly to life albeit in the cognitive realm.) Belief in his redemptive death takes off because some people see him after he is dead. Kelsier’s apparent death at the hands of the Lord Ruler takes on meaning and is imbued with new power when his new followers see him after the fact. In some way, he lives! Likewise early Christianity, after Jesus’ tragic death, tells stories of a few select appearances to his closest followers. On the one hand, we’re supposed to trust the story because of these eye witness accounts. On the other hand, it seems important to the story that Jesus didn’t go on a public speaking “Resurrection Tour” around the ancient world. Part of the deal is that only a few people knew about it.
Kelsier is the flawed skaa Messiah, born of the noble and the poor, whose story of love, loss, and friendship just might have something to say to the classic Savior story.