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 authors' interest in religion infused their works in different ways. Some critics note that more serious fiction writers include religious or spiritual elements.
"There seems to be more novels like this coming but you don't have a preach tone," said Henry Carrigan Jr., an Ohio librarian, professor of religion and literature and reviewer of religion titles for Library Journal.
He said these new works convey "there's something attractive about religion." Such novels tend to evoke "a sense of a lost religiousness, an attempt to get back to this lost transcendence."
In his new book, Mr. Updike puts the characters in a religious context and traces three generations of Wilmots, beginning in 1910 with Presbyterian clergyman Clarence Wilmot in Patterson, N.J.
Besieged by the modern atheisms of Darwinism and higher Bible criticism, Clarence loses his faith, quits the ministry and fails as an encyclopedia salesman. His youngest son, Teddy, watches his decline and feels loyal to his father's irreligion.
Yet Teddy and his farm-girl wife create a home of such security, Mr. Updike said in the interview, that their child Essie feels the power of God and rides "the wave of grace up into cinematic success."
Essie goes to Hollywood and becomes a movie star, raising her only son, Clark, in that setting.
Clark goes ski bumming in Colorado in the 1990s and joins a mountain sect on the model of David Koresh's Branch Davidians, which ends in a fiery showdown with the government.
"I meant to take us from strong characters who have no faith, to characters who have too much faith," Mr. Updike said.
If there's a moral to the story, he said, "I suppose . . . we must find the place between a paralyzing lack of faith and a blinding superabundance of faith. That the human condition is one of suspension, that we must have some faith in something, I think, beyond ourselves." But too much confidence, he said, can make people "intolerant, cruel and even mad."
Though Mr. Updike said he writes for the joy of making books rather than to preach, a message is there. So is the debate on how much ideas in novels shape the spiritual side of American culture.
David Lyle Jeffrey, editor of A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature and professor at the University of Ottawa, said modern America lacks a pre-eminent literary theologian. …