'Orthodox' complaint by reader

Trust me, I am aware that the Eastern Orthodox Churches have some rites that are unique and, to the eyes of outsiders, may seem a bit on the wild side. I mean, watch the video attached to this post, which focuses on traditions -- I stress that they are what we call "small-t traditions" -- observed by some Orthodox believers during the recent "blessing of the waters" celebrations of Theophany (called Epiphany in the West). It is one thing to see people jumping into blessed waters as they observe these traditions in, well, South Florida. It's something else to see it taking place in Russia, even in, let's say, Siberia.

Nevertheless, I do not believe that it is time for reporters to start using the word "Orthodox" -- with a large "O" -- in the following context. If you happen to be Orthodox, you may want to sit down before reading the following chunk of this very strange story.

This is from The Star-Ledger in New Jersey:

A New York City woman on trial for starving four of her children was brought up in a "cult-like" religion that prohibited its members from direct contact with the outside world, her brother testified yesterday.

"It was an almost cult-like existence. We weren't allowed to watch TV, go to the movies, or vote," said Frederick Phillips, 45, of Manhattan, describing the lifestyles of members of the Brooklyn-based Church of the Brethren, an Orthodox Christian church that believed in a strict interpretation of the Bible.

Say what? Needless to say, the Church of the Brethren is not part of the ancient churches of Eastern Orthodoxy. In fact, I am not even sure if this story is describing a congregation that is linked to the Church of the Brethren, as traditionally understood.

So what is going on here? I know one thing. GetReligion reader Jason Gilbert of Topeka, Kan., was right to pen the following letter to the newspaper.

I am writing about a factual error in your story, "Defendant raised in cult-like faith, brother testifies." You use the term "Orthodox Christian," which a proper noun that does not apply to the organization described. Additionally, your general treatment of the defendant's religion in this story seems flawed.

Firstly, to capitalize the "O" in "Orthodox" means that the church is "Orthodox Christian;" that is, part of the Eastern Orthodox communion of churches ("Greek Orthodox," "Russian Orthodox," etc.). I am certain that the Church of the Brethren is not part of this communion.

The second error is more vague and perhaps forgivable. If you had not capitalized the "O," then you would merely have been describing the church as "orthodox" in the sense of adhering to traditional Christian dogmas, beliefs, or practices. Nowadays, with the complete shattering of a cohesive Christian identification, it is understandable that a reporter is unable to pin down exactly what those are, but from the small about of space given to the description of this organization's dogmas, beliefs, and practices, they don't appear to fit the definition at all.

Furthermore, if you are going to mention a religious organization in the lede, you should take the time to find at least one other source of information about that organization. It appears that maybe you used "Orthodox" as a synonym for something like "ultra strict" or "controlling." Some journalists use "fundamentalist," or "extremist," which are problematic. Using "orthodox" with a small "o" would also be problematic in this case. However, to make it a proper noun is simply factually incorrect.

Amen, all the way around. Strange, strange, strange.

In terms of good journalism, this story was most unorthodox.

Please respect our Commenting Policy