"The Black Box"--Anthology by Nickell John Romjue 


Book Review

I've been reading some adult fiction lately.

How strange that it would seem wrong to say that! In this case, "adult" means intellectually and emotionally challenging.

The Black Box Nickell John Romjue is a military historian who sees the present as clearly as the past. He wrote The Black Box: Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud - Stories to explore the effect of Darwin etc. on individuals at the start of the 21st century.

My first impression on reading his introduction to this volume was, "here is a man who knows how to write." His facility and rhythm in the use of English were immediately noticeable. As I continued reading the stories I also discovered his vocabulary is also impressive. Mine is good by most standards, but just now I had to look up "massif." (Please don't tell me, "Come on, everyone knows that!")

Romjue is not simple, nor is he light. The title of the book borrows intentionally from Michael Behe's book,Darwin's Black Box, which is is itself a central theme of the first story. But the darkness of the title pervades the collection, as Romjue explores a world dominated by Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. One of his characters is typical; he

"did not believe that there was a hole the size of God in every man. He believed only in the hole." 

Now Mr. Romjue happens to live just a few miles from me, and last week we met over breakfast. He had graciously initiated contact after reading a guest column I had written in the local newspaper. In person he is engaging, friendly, quick to speak of the family he loves and the places he has visited. He is a Christian believer who knows about the God-shaped hole and knows the God who fills it. More than most Christians I've interacted with, he pays attention to what's happening in the wider world.

Characters throughout this book of his are 21st secularists writ large, exaggerated yet recognizable. (Though there is one character, in the last story, whose proper century is ambiguous. I'll leave it at that for you.) Their philosophie' outcomes are lifeless, defeated. Sure, it's fiction; an author can lead any character to a dark ending, and the real risk of fiction like this is that it becomes propaganda rather than art. I'm quite sure readers with different convictions than mine would evaluate it differently, but to my eyes there is reality here. Some of it is overstated–but in the direction of truth. It opens a window on the lives of men and women who believe only in the hole. And there are a few persons represented in these stories with a different, more life-giving message to tell. They tell it creatively, in unexpected ways.

My favorite story was "Zarathustra," about the surprisingly not-tragic ending of a great postmodern novelist, Brennen:

"Brennen, Brennen, burning those twenty years that saw our century go from its respite of confident hope into the time of troubles in which we would live, liberated from ourselves. Brennen, Brennen, burning bright, fey archangel of the night."

. . .

"'The long-dying God' Brennen said as we stood before Erasmus' gray fortress in Nietzsche's city. 'He will not need another hundred years. It is I who will finish Him!'"

Brennen's final outcome is marked by a challenge from an unknown author writing an updated, revised, and mysterious word from Nietzsche's Zarathustra; and by a protege of his who sealed his fate–yet his fate had been altered irrevocably and more permanently by his own decisions before.

There is humor in Romjue's writing as well: the Darwinist professor in the first story is Huxel, who had written a book, Rooster's Combs and Donkey's Brays that sounds suspiciously like something another evolutionist wrote. The narrator who reports the challenges to Darwin is Denton, which is probably not a name that was just picked out of the air. And the challenge to Darwin that he investigated? Well, there was Behe's book; but there was also the overnight appearance of a huge, Rushmore-like head of Charles Darwin in the mountains of Colorado. How did it get there? Nobody knew. Was it intelligently designed or not? I got a kick out of how someone decided to bring the investigation to a close, and in a way you could say Darwin got a kick out of it, too.

Good fiction has its own sufficient reason for being. Like most good fiction, though, Romjue's stories also carry a point. If a message like his is persuasive or influential (which it definitely can be), it's not by the give-and-take of evidence and logic, but on the same level that a message like George Orwell's or William Golding's or J. R. R. Tolkien's is persuasive. It's by the direct route to the heart.

It's far too easy to leave art and heart behind. But Christianity is not just technical; it is a matter of love and worship. It has its technical side, but that is not its core. I commend this book to you as a way to encourage your heart and your imagination experience some unique perspectives on God's truth and on the contrasts presented in our world to it.

(Cross-posted at Strategic Christian) 

Posted: Wed - January 17, 2007 at 01:01 PM           |


© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

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