When John Updike, one of the country's best-known living novelists, wrote a melancholy story about its middle class, he ended up showing how a nation's faith shifted from God to the cinema.
Or, in Mr. Updike's more sublime terms, his new novel, "In the Beauty of the Lilies," became a saga of how the sins of the fathers are passed to future generations for the worse or for redemption.
Can top fiction writers who address religion also serve as public theologians.
"I don't think you have to force theology onto a novel," Mr. Updike said during a recent teleconference with reporters. "There is going to be some religious or metaphysical issue there. Why, indeed, write about people at all if there is no religious dimension?"
The role of literary theologian was far clearer when Italy's Dante ("The Inferno") and England's John Milton ("Paradise Lost") and John Bunyan ("Pilgrim's Progress") wrote epics that shaped the beliefs of entire societies.
A number of this century's leading …