A Comparative Critique of “In Living Color”

 A Comparative Critique of In Living Color: An Intercultural Approach to Pastoral Care and Counseling (Lartey)and The Skilled Pastor: Counseling as the Practice of Theology(Taylor)

Even the mildly interested reader, while comparing these two texts, will soon realize a significant difference in the approaches of their respective authors.  This difference is first suggested, to a certain degree, within the titles of the two books.  Lartey’s focus (In Living Color: An Intercultural Approach to Pastoral Care and Counseling) claims to be that of a critical examination of pastoral care in a multi-cultured world, while Taylor (The Skilled PastorCounseling as the Practice of Theology) seems to work with the assumption of pastoral care being offered without significant regard to any specific cultural setting.  More specifically, since Taylor uses illustrations that are found to be consistent with this student’s experiences, it might even be said that Taylor is examining pastoral care being offered within the confines of a contemporary American worldview.  No apology for this is necessary as it seems Taylor’s work is simply not designed to address issues arising out of cultural differences.

Other notable differences are found when critically examining and comparing the texts.  Both authors provide differing definitions of pastoral care that they use as part of their respective writings.  Taylor defines pastor as “both lay and ordained persons who fulfill their baptismal vocation by attempting to communicate the gospel through interpersonal relationships.”[1]  To provide additional clarification he defines gospel as “the good news that God is with us … conveyed through the birth, life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”[2]

Lartey defines pastoral care as “helping activities participated in by people who recognise [sic] a transcendent dimension to human life.”[3]  Elucidating farther, Lartey describes the one who recognizes the transcendent dimension as anyone who realizes there is “more to life than often meets the eye,” and who recognizes the “mysteriousness about life.”[4]

Although these two definitions may occasionally intersect, it is quite obvious that they cannot always be congruent.  Since a good argument could probably be made that the baptized Christian recognizes a mystery to life, Lartey’s definition of the pastoral caregiver would seem to include those who fall under Taylor’s.  However, Lartey’s definition does not limit the caregiver to Christian converts only.  It is broad enough to include those who might recognize “a mystery to life,” yet deny, or even be hostile to the Christian faith.  Therefore, Taylor’s definition will at times exclude those whom Lartey includes.

Another comparative difference in the views of the two authors lies in the resource material that they recognize as useful for the caregiver.  Taylor lists Scripture as one of several religious resources “generally available for communicating the gospel in pastoral settings.”[5]  Although he does not specifically define Scripture, the overall thrust of his writings has led this student to believe that Taylor unequivocally refers to the Old and New Testaments of the modern Bible.

Although it does not appear that Lartey disallows the Bible, it would seem that his worldview does not appreciate its universal impact.  For example, while working with the concept of transcendence, Lartey provides that we have “no direct access to an objective, external standard by which all viewpoints on transcendence may be judged as ultimately true or false.”[6]  Certainly, he is entitled to that opinion.  But with this statement Lartey widens the margin between himself and those Christian workers who recognize the universal authority of the Bible, appreciate its ability to identify truth and error, and effectively use it as a resource in providing care to all people.  By attempting to remove an absolute standard from pastoral relationships, Lartey paves the way for religious relativism.

It is clear that this student is not alone in recognizing the syncretistic slant of Lartey’s work.  In the Forward of Lartey’s book, Professor James N. Poling makes an attempt to intercept this objection and dismiss it before the reader has opportunity to make the discovery.  Poling’s effort is transparent, however, and fails because he does not take the time to anticipate the possible challenges generated by his own statements of refute, and address them with sound intellectual reasoning.  This is unfortunate because if he is aware of reasonable arguments, they are left unknown.  The critical reader then has the final word on the matter.  Lartey’s work, therefore, leaves this student with the understanding that it is an essay that may occasionally flow beyond the boundaries of revealed Biblical truth, and may even surge against it at times.  For this reason it must be cautiously entertained.

If not before, than certainly by this juncture, the two books are moving in separate circles.  Taylor’s work seems to spin within the context of a Christian worldview while Lartey apparently orbits within a religious relativistic understanding.  Once the reader makes this identification, each book can be better appreciated within its own framework.

As already indicated Taylor does not labor long to recognize the multicultural world to which the pastoral caregiver is often exposed.  However, he does recognize a phenomenon that he describes as differences, which he believes is a significant factor in prohibiting a caregiver from being fully engaged with the person receiving care.  He describes differences as sociological and personal filters that serve as barriers making it “difficult to understand others and their points of view.”[7]  Certainly a cultural difference could serve as a barrier – which, incidentally, Taylor makes reference to in an illustration to fortify this point.

The Skilled Pastor provides sample conversations between care-givers and care-receivers, wherein problems are discussed.  The examples given include concerns that might arise during a hospital stay, differing opinions about worship service, and feelings of confusion over the premature death of a loved one.  These problems might easily occur within this particular student’s pastoral care ministry, and for that reason were found exceptionally helpful.  In a very practical manner Taylor walks through these topics, pointing out the techniques that are counter-productive.  Examples of these: being unaware a person’s non-verbal efforts at communication, remaining in a defensive role, and not allowing the person to clarify his/her own thoughts and feelings.

These sample dialogues, and their subsequent analyses, were found by this student to be very helpful.  By showing how care-giving can go awry, Taylor allowed this reader to see why some personal care-giving opportunities probably did not result in the optimum conclusion that had been hoped for. Taylor then rewrote the dialogues using his methods for care-giving.  Obviously not all care-giving opportunities are destined to end with the excellent results in Taylor’s re-worked encounters.  But the general rules he applies do seem designed to reduce friction between care-giver and receiver, and promote more opportunity for dialogue.  This should naturally increase the productivity of these types of sessions.

In the Eighth Chapter of In Living Color, Lartey cites two case studies to illustrate his techniques.  Both studies draw from intercultural settings.  Even though this student has not had similar experiences, they were helpful in two major respects: to examine the value of his techniques, and to allow a closer inspection of Lartey’s worldview.

The first case study was of particular interest.  While in Ghana, Africa, Lartey counseled an African Christian couple who were struggling with problems primarily arising out of the conflict they were feeling between their marital situation and their families’ traditions.  They were feeling condemned by a deceased family member who seemed to be harassing them from the grave.  They had also been engaged in some pagan practices, and appeared to be struggling with some conflict that they were feeling between a rite recommended by the pagan traditional healer, and their Christian beliefs.

Lartey suggests that despite how easy it might be to dismiss some of the couple’s perceptions as simple superstitions, it is important to remember that because they mean a great deal to the couple, they must still be addressed.  Agreed.  Whether or not their perceptions were based on reality, it is clear that the impressions they left on the couple were causing them anxiety.  In a sense the Apostle Paul seemed to use a similar tactic when he addressed the philosophers in Athens and called their attention to their superstition of worshipping an “unknown God.”[8]  He did not outright condemn their empty superstition, but used it as a springboard to talk about Jesus Christ, whom they did not know.

As Lartey continued the illustration, he claimed to have taken the couple to the graveside of the deceased family member where they performed a rite perhaps similar to what was recommended by the pagan healer.  At the graveside Lartey asked the couple to visualize Christ, who offered them healing and forgiveness.

Without additional detail of the account, it is difficult to properly assess Lartey’s technique.  From the onset of his book this student has held his theology in suspicion.  Resultantly, specific questions must be answered to properly critique.  Did he encourage pagan rituals at the graveside that might be in violation of Scripture?  Did he ask the couple to conjure up Christ as part of their visualization?  Did he reference Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, or was he speaking in general terms of a Christ-like figure as spoken of in many false religions and secular philosophies?  Unfortunately we cannot draw answers to these questions from his text, and therefore cannot fully evaluate Lartey’s techniques.

In summary, both Lartey and Taylor offer some thought-provoking insights.  It must be understood, however, that the value of any technique cannot be appreciated solely by its apparent result, or its general acceptance in a given field of study.  It is this writer’s opinion that all techniques employed by the pastoral caregiver must be evaluated in the light of God’s truth as revealed within the pages of Scripture, which “is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”  It is with the Bible – the greatest resource for pastoral care God has granted us – that every man of God is thoroughly equipped “for every good work.”[9]

[1] Charles W. Taylor, The Skilled Pastor: Counseling as the Practice of Theology, (© 1991 Fortress Press) pp. 4-5.

[2] Ibid, page 5.

[3] Emmanuel Y. Lartey, In Living Color: An Intercultural Approach to Pastoral Care and Counseling, (© 2003 Jessica Kingsley Publishers) page 30.

[4] Ibid, page 26.

[5] Charles W. Taylor, The Skilled Pastor: Counseling as the Practice of Theology, (© 1991 Fortress Press) page 7.

[6] Emmanuel Y. Lartey, In Living Color: An Intercultural Approach to Pastoral Care and Counseling, (© 2003 Jessica Kingsley Publishers) page 27.

[7] Charles W. Taylor, The Skilled Pastor: Counseling as the Practice of Theology, (© 1991 Fortress Press) page 25.

[8] Acts 17:23 (NAS)

[9] 2 Tim. 3:16-17 (NIV).