Help! Is it possible to be a critical christian and have purposeful faith?

As a four year old, I used to like trying to work out how things worked. Nothing was safe, clocks were a favourite, I’d take the backs of them and then remove the springs pulleys and mechanism. Sometimes I could put them back together, on other occasions there would be a mess of wires and springs on the bedroom floor and no clock possible. I’d take apart bikes and put them together again when I was older. I was curious from an early age. It was more than just asking the ‘why’ question but the ‘how’ question.

My school report might read that I was messy and untidy, but would also say that when it was something that I was interested in it be normal for me to continue that same curiosity. I had an active brain. Being perceptive was something that I had been commended for. Growing up asking questions, growing up thinking. I dont say these things as thinking of myself in any way special or unique, if faith and social development theories have anything to go by then curiosity and exploring are so much part of growing up.

I guess what I didnt do was stop at bikes, or clocks, but continued to ask, sometimes the stupid, questions in my growing up in church; why do you believe in that? why do we do things in a certain way in this church? my own perceptive brain was thinking, and didnt want i guess the stuff of faith that i was drawn to, to be a back alley or cul de saq that hadnt been thought through. Yet even then, I had blind spots that needed others to point out to me – as sometimes the answers to my questions positioned faith in a certain way within the box of that church tradition i guess- within the safe.

Recently I was reading faith formation in a secular world, by Andrew Root, in it, he brings to the youth ministry attention the observations of the world as proposed by Charles Taylor. In a way it gave me a sense of relief – but also a worry.

A relief, in that what Root explores from Taylor is that faith exists in a context, largely that is critical of it. Critical because of religious institutional scandals, cover ups, because of perceived prejudice against groups and inequality, and , the main thing when i was growing up, a media perception of its irrelevance, boring, or something generally to take the piss out of.  I think I also grew up, in that same zone of perception and criticalness that meant that it became difficult to accept completely what was said by powerful people, one example being to ‘stand at wembley stadium and ‘feel’ Jesus at work whilst singing along to a song’ as one example. I guess i questioned the evangelical way of things, that at the time had also fed and nurtured my faith since birth, to a point. But growing up questioning, found a critical edge, and then, in my mid twenties, a further space to enjoy being questioning, and opening up more of the how and why of things through academic study at ICC. (Now SSCM, Glasgow).

I had an avenue to be critical, to think, to read, and in the main ever since I have enjoyed reading, thinking and also being at times really awestruck by images, metaphors and descriptions of God through writing that has broadened, and aided me in personal devotion. Be a critical reflector, thats what they said.  However, there is still a snag, a big one.

My own critical and cynical nature.

What I struggle to do is peel off the onion layer of critique and expose myself to the vulnerability of faith, even that innocence of faith. Im too battle weary, too thoughtful, too much a product of the critical age, and a culture of realism that besets the same. Dont get me wrong its not culture I blame, but aware that it is this culture that it is easy to fit in. And at the same time easy to be critical of ongoing practice that seem at odds with what i might perceive as the truth or the performance of theology, or even just poor ethics. The hand that used to feed me, the evangelical church tradition, is probably the one i bite the most.

But as a contrast I have found solace, spiritually, in a theological framework that remythologises and constructs. The great Theodrama that expands the metaphors of action, of time, of God interjecting and the drama of everyday life. A built up theology of Gods voice speaking in the everyday and a drama of ongoing redemption that connects us all in an overall plan of redemption. It is a thing of great beauty, of humanity and of promise. It is what in every day should cause me to wonder, to believe and take hold of.

But instead, beautiful theology meets skin of cynicism.

Where the Theodrama prompts and provokes – the me of my time kicks back the question and writes it off.

Once the critical has been unleashed is the fear that it wont go back in the bubble? Can I not just have an innocent simple faith anymore? I never had an innocent simple faith, and if im a realist, i dont think anyone has an innocent simple faith anyway, unless thats just my projection. Innocent and simple faith, is that what we’re called to have anyway? see a load more questions. Then a shred of doubt? Can God still use me even if I am critical and cynical at times, or might he use me because of it? Have I spent too long trying to be someone else, someone who isnt full of questions, thoughts and exploring? What if i need to not be for a moment, can i switch off the radar, and just relax and be in the moment and faithful.

I was visiting a project a few weeks ago, that were doing detached youthwork out on a fairly wet night in Glasgow. Before we went out we met at a house with others and spent some time praying together, at least they did. I couldnt help but think that it was the kind of moment that I hadnt had for a while, spending time praying with people, or more to the point, praying with people who seemed to have that innocent faith, combined with an missional heart for a local area that they were prepared to do something. The haggard me realises that I have had to lead prayers in staff meetings previously when much of the time there was foreboding and challenge in the air. On other times involved in prayer meetings where there was too much amazeballs going on that honestly it was difficult not to feel threatened, or that its so unreal that it doesnt make any sense, or its power games and trying to be the most charismatic pray-er in a room of exciting youthfulness. (back to me dissing the evangelicals again – apologies) .

In the great Theodrama, there may be a role suitable, though its not the critic.

Its the Theologian. The task of the theol0gian is to help the play towards its redemptive ending, to keep it guided along against the script, however difficult this is. It is not to ask critical questions that derail the drama of redemption, but ask :

are we on track with the Theodrama?

Is what we’re doing the way of Jesus?

Are we performing in and acting it out in obedience to the prompts of God in the midst?

These are the questions for the theologian to ask of the action before it, is not to critique the play of others, as they do their performances, but to steer guide and help gravitate the existing plays to develop Gods plays. As The Greatest showman realised, critics can say one thing about a performance, but the audience another. But in the Theodrama, the audience is the guest not the critic, and the theologian is the dramaturge guiding the play to be closer to the way of Jesus, but also in doing so is part of the action in obedience to the action. As has been stated previously, who are the theologians, who are those that know in innocence the heart of God – thatll be the children, the intuitive theologians. Those with innocent left, not with innocent lost. More are theologians that just the academic, for, its also the task of the theologian performers, the pastor-theologians who look after the flock, and those who expand the stage to include others in the performance, theologians one and all in the midst of the drama. Shaping from within, listening to the prompts in the heat of the action. Being followers of the great improviser on the stage. As i said, this is rather beautiful.

There might well be space in the Theodrama for critical and helpful questions, sometimes depending on the audience or performers, these rent accepted or heard, other times they are questions loaded with too much malice, cynicism or motive, and  i know i struggle with getting this balance. What i struggle with as much though is hanging onto a kind of accepting faith when my inner cynic, cant keep quiet, and neither my mind and spirit is rarely still. Is it possible to be critical christian? – and yet still have a role to play in the overall drama, and also the day to day drama in the world.

In a way what right do I have to think of myself as a critic, how do I know the acts and wonders of God in the midst, prompting the faithful to new performances, what can I do but contribute to the performances and helping others with theirs. It is no relief to be like this, however much I might be a ‘product’ of a questioning culture. It makes it harder to see God in things, to relax in the transcendance space and to accept an innocent of God involved. Can a critical christian have faith – yes- it just might not be an innocent one anymore. In a way, that is ok. It is trying to find the grown up faith beyond and through the questions that I am struggling to find – when faith seems only to be about simplicity, innocence and acceptance. Can I still have faith, even more so. Is it a learning faith that retains curiosity (as part of our Humanity Acts 17) very much so.

There is no going back for me to naive innocent faith, once the can has been opened and new light has dawned. But that is not either what we’re asked to have. We are meant to grow up in faith, and be aware that our critical nature is part of who we are, and so developing learning, being challenged must be part and parcel of discipleship, and despair and cynicism, like the psalms might be left to our moments of personal reflection, angst and anger. Help! i may be a critical christian thats lost his faith in evangelicalism, but that doesnt mean that i dont have a faith or purpose. What im trying to work out is how the beauty and mystery of God can be realised even with my critical nature as part of the deal. Does God accept our critical nature? take us as we are?



Root Andrew, Faith Formation in a secular age, 2017

Vanhoozer, K, The Drama of Doctrine, 2005

Vanhoozer, K, Remythologising Theology, 2010


Author: James

Currently I work part time for both Frontier Youth Trust ( and Communities Together Durham ( and am also self employed and do various aspects of youthwork consultancy, including training, writing, lecturing, seminars and written pieces, including organisational consultancy, community profiling and detached/youthwork training. Please do get in touch if I can be of help to you in your church, project or organisation to develop your youth and community work. I have contributed to 'Here be Dragons (2013), and two recent articles in the youth and theology journal and 'ANVIL' the CMS online journal. My recent employment includes, working for FYT as a youthwork development adviser, being the centre director at Durham YFC, and before this I was known as 'Mr Sidewalk' as I was the project coordinator for the Sidewalk Project in Perth, where I facilitated the delivery of 5 years of detached youthwork on the streets, schools and communities to engage with young people , and support through alcohol misuse issues. In 2017 I completed an MA in Theology & Ministry at St John's College, Durham, and in 2008 graduated from ICC (now NTC Glasgow) with an honours degree in youth work with Applied theology.

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