Wait a minute, who wrote the icons?

Time for a dip into my GetReligion folder of guilt, that file into which I put stories that I really want to write about when I finally get a few minutes, somehow, to read them carefully and then write a post.

OK, all of you non-Orthodox readers, this is a strange one. Please hang in there with me.

On one level, this is a perfectly normal mainstream story about life in the convert-friendly era of Eastern Orthodoxy here in North America. I was particularly interested in this story because of the years that I spent covering religion in Colorado. So a beautiful new Orthodox sanctuary near the People’s Republic of Boulder caught my attention. Here’s the start of the report in The Daily Camera:

The building is brand-new, the land never before scraped, but the site in Erie where St. Luke Orthodox Christian Church now sits has roots going back nearly two millennia.

A vivid, larger than life-size image of the Virgin Mary, accompanied by a young Jesus, stretches her arms out above the altar. The Messiah — surrounded by painted prophets — gazes down from the dome inside the church’s temple, which is adorned with Byzantine arches and columns.

There’s no organ here — all music is chanted or sung a cappella. There are no statues — warm-hued iconography is the rule. Standing inside St. Luke evokes a different time, a different era.

If there is anything wrong with the start of this story, it’s the assumption that this parish is somehow strange or unique. The Camera team does not seem to realize that the growth of Father David Mustian’s flock is part of a larger phenomenon that has been going on in North America for several decades.

Yes, Orthodoxy is an old faith with roots to the birth of Christianity. So what is the news?

At first, I thought the story was going to skip the obvious question: How many of these people are converts and how many are part of a stream of ethnic believers? But, no, we are told:

Christi Ghiz, 40, has been an Orthodox Christian for 15 years. The Lafayette woman started off as a Baptist, but saw in her new faith a rich history that seemed to be fading from the Protestant services she attended. …

Ghiz said that sense of tradition is “comforting.” More than half of St. Luke’s 250 members are converts from other faiths. That includes Mustian, who converted to Orthodox Christianity from the Episcopal Church nearly 20 years ago.

“I was looking for a church that would stay the same in terms of its doctrinal beliefs, which go back to the early centuries,” said the 56-year-old Yale Divinity School graduate. “The problem with always trying to appeal to the right now means you’re quickly out of date.”

So, we are rolling along in pretty ordinary territory and suddenly things get really strange.

You see, readers never find out if St. Luke’s is part of one of the major jurisdictions of Eastern Orthodoxy — Greek, Ukrainian, Russian, Serbian, Romanian or whatever. Now, I thought this parish was part of the Antiochian Orthodox archdiocese here in North America and, sure enough, it’s easy to find that out with a few clicks of a mouse (look right here). This is a pretty standard fact to include in this kind of story.

That being the case, I was genuinely surprised when I hit this reference a few paragraphs later, in a discussion of the sanctuary’s iconography.

“Iconography is a holy tradition,” said Archbishop Gregory, an Orthodox monk from the Dormition Skete monastery outside Buena Vista. “When a person looks at an icon, their eyes want to stay on it.”

Archbishop Gregory and three of his colleagues created all of the icons for St. Luke, painting the images on canvas and then gluing them to the walls and ceiling of the temple. He said it took about six months to do the work.

Say what? There is an Orthodox archbishop residing at a monastery in Buena Vista? That had to be a mistake, thought I. Perhaps this monk had a unique title that the reporter simply misunderstood.

No, the facts are a bit stranger than that. As it turns out, this Archbishop Gregory is part of a body called the Genuine Orthodox Church of America, an old-calendar splinter church which Orthodox Wiki rather bluntly notes is “not in communion with any Orthodox body.”

So let me see if I have this straight. The iconography inside this large and lovely new Antiochian Orthodox sanctuary was written by monks from a tiny, non-canonical jurisdiction? I would love to know the story behind that transaction, although that is probably a rather inside baseball issue that would only interest the Orthodox. Maybe.

Still, it is genuinely strange that a report of this length does not include any information about the national and international roots of this large and growing parish. Strange, indeed.

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The last patriarch in Turkey (and why)

We live in the age in which print and video forms of journalism are merging into something new and, at this point, uncertain.

Now, if you are paying close attention you know that the problem isn’t that journalists are flopping when it comes to moving into the “multi-platform future.” There has been lots of progress there. The problem is that the Internet age has wrecked the advertising business model that has been sustaining the news industry for several generations.

Anyway, part of my job at the Washington Journalism Center is to convince students who think that they want to “go into television” that they now have to prepare to work in print reporting as well as in video and audio journalism. The print reporters, of course, have to learn how to handle some of the duties on the other side of that divide.

If you don’t believe that progress is being made, then just surf around at ESPN.com — the most technically advanced and complex site in news. Try to imagine a site that covers politics or culture with the depth that this site offers in sports coverage.

Doubters may also want to click here and take a look at a fine feature story that I read the other day at CNN.com, of all places. Please know that I started digging into this piece with plenty of doubts, since (a) I am Orthodox and (b) it covers a subject that I have written about, based a small bit on first-hand research in Istanbul in 2004.

The headline on the CNN piece asks a blunt question: “The last Orthodox patriarch in Turkey?” That is not a paranoid question, as this solid wire-service feature makes clear.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is the living embodiment of an ancient tradition. From his historic base in Istanbul, Turkey, the 270th Patriarch of Constantinople claims to be the direct successor of the Apostle Andrew.

Today he’s considered “first among equals” in the leadership of the Greek Orthodox church, and is the spiritual leader of 250 million Orthodox Christians around the world. But few of them are in his own home country.

“We are a small Christian minority,” Bartholomew laments. “We have suffered because of Greek-Turkish confrontation, struggle, and a lack of mutual trust and confidence. And that is why we lost most of our faithful.”

Turkey’s once-flourishing Greek community is fading away. The country is predominantly Muslim and led by a secular government that’s had a complicated relationship with the patriarchate. If Turkish laws, demographics and attitudes aren’t changed, Bartholomew could ultimately be the last Patriarch of Constantinople.

At every turn, this piece surprised me. Most of all, I did not expect it to handle the nasty legal details in any depth, especially a history of government-sanctioned violence against the historic Orthodox community. I also wondered if the CNN team would deal with the most emotional detail of all — the long-shuttered seminary at Halki.

For more than a century, the Halki seminary educated future Greek Orthodox bishops, theologians and patriarchs, until Turkey’s highest court ordered it closed in 1971. Since then, it’s remained empty, worrying former students like theologian Satirios Varnalidis.

“We want to reopen this school so that we can provide new priests to the Ecumenical Patriarchate,” Varnalidis said. “Otherwise, in a little while our community just won’t have any more priests.”

For years, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has talked of reopening the school.

Talks continue and continue and continue and continue and continue, world without end. Amen.

However, the Halki angle is one place where the story falls short. Yes, without the seminary the Orthodox have no new priests. That is obviously important. Yet without the seminary’s monastic community, the Orthodox have no monks and, thus, no bishops, since Eastern Orthodoxy follows the ancient tradition of electing only celibate monks and priests as bishops. And if there are no Orthodox bishops who are from Turkey and trained in Turkey, this means that — according to Turkish law — there can be no new ecumenical patriarch, since this office must be held by a Turkish citizen.

That’s a major detail, one of the only missing details in a fine report that demonstrates that fine print reporting can be done by a wide variety of news organizations.

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Another sanctuary at Ground Zero

One of the hardest things to explain to people who have never worked in a real newsroom is why some events are news at one moment in time and in one location, but a similar story is not news at some other time in some other location.

So you are a reporter. Your desk phone rings and a caller wants you to write a story about the new fellowship hall that is being built at her suburban evangelical church. You ask, “Why is this a story?”

Well, says the caller, last week you wrote a big story about a church that was simply changing a window. Isn’t a fellowship hall a bigger story than a window?

But, you explain, that was an original window in the downtown Episcopal parish that is the city’s oldest church. There were question about its status as part of a historic site. The affair ended up being highly emotional and it provoked a fiery public meeting that revealed divisions in the congregation.

Silence. The caller says the newspaper simply doesn’t like evangelicals, but will cover anything that happens in an Episcopal church. She hangs up.

So with that in mind, let me acknowledge that I have received quite a few notes in recent weeks asking why GetReligion hasn’t commented on the sudden burst of coverage of the standoff between the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and the officials guiding the Ground Zero work in New York City. The standoff focuses on the rebuilding of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, a tiny, but highly symbolic, sanctuary was — literally — crushed by the collapse of the World Trade Center. The congregation is named in honor of St. Nicholas of Myra, the 4th century saint whose story eventually evolved in the West into St. Nicholas, as in “St. Nick.”

This story has received a mini-wave of ink, with stories running everywhere from Fox News to the New York Times. I have also received copies and extra copies of the press releases from the Greek archdiocese, offering its side of the story. One byline was especially interesting — atop the following column that ran in the Albuquerque Journal. The writer, Harry Moskos, is the retired editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel and he one of the editors whose interest in religion news led to the birth of my weekly national column with the Scripps Howard News Service.

I wrote back to one GetReligion reader noting that the coverage has all been rather perfunctory and that I didn’t see any real issues — for better or for worse — to note in a post. But, replied the reader, isn’t the story itself interesting and the fact that its being covered now and it wasn’t covered in the past?

In other words, “Why is this a news story at this moment in time and it wasn’t before?” That’s a variation on that old, old question: How do journalists define “news”?

First of all, I have always thought that this story is newsworthy — as you can tell from the column I wrote about it, which I called “Saints at Ground Zero.”

Please note the date on that column, as in Sept. 26, 2001.

In this case I was talking about “saints” as in the relics of the saints of this parish, relics lost when the sanctuary disappeared under the firefall of the Twin Towers. Here’s a piece of that column, built around an interview with the still grieving priest, Father John Romas:

The members of St. Nicholas do not think that any parishioners died when the towers, a mere 250 feet away, fell onto their small sanctuary in an avalanche of concrete, glass, steel and fire. Nevertheless, the Orthodox believers want to search in the two-story mound of debris for the remains of three loved ones who died long ago — the relics of St. Nicholas, St. Katherine and St. Sava. Small pieces of their skeletons were kept in a gold-plated box marked with an image of Christ. This ossuary was stored in a 700-pound, fireproof safe. …

It’s hard for outsiders to understand what this loss would mean to a parish, said Father Robert Stephanopoulos, dean of the city’s Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. These ties with the saints are more than symbolic. This mystery is rooted in centuries of tradition.

“We believe the Communion of the Saints is real and that we worship and pray with all the saints in heaven,” he said. “But these particular saints are also a part of that parish family, in a unique way. They have been a part of that parish for many years and, of course, the people want to see these relics recovered. Yes, this is a family matter.”

So why is the story of this church’s attempts to rebuild news RIGHT NOW? Why does it matter that Orthodox leaders are struggling in negotiations, while, well, efforts to build another sanctuary nearby are receiving so much positive and negative attention?

You see, that question simply answered itself, didn’t it?

You can see the context in this passage from one of the best stories written about the plight of St. Nicholas, which was produced by reporter Nicole Neroulias and the Religion News Service team.

Construction has begun on the 9/11 memorial and several of the major buildings planned for the 16-acre site, with estimated completion dates between 2011 and 2014. Little St. Nicholas, however, remains in limbo.

Negotiations with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for a land swap and public funding reached an impasse more than a year ago. The stalemate is only now generating public attention due to heated protests over Park51, a proposed Islamic community center several blocks away that’s been dubbed the “Ground Zero mosque” by critics.

“St. Nicholas has nothing to do with this mosque controversy. We believe in religious freedom, and whether the mosque should or shouldn’t be there, that’s a whole different dialogue,” said the Rev. Mark Arey, archdiocese spokesman. “But it’s a rising tide that lifts all boats. People say the mosque has been greenlighted, but why not this church?”

The details of the standoff about the rebuilding process are quite complex and you can read them for yourself. Both sides are speaking out — rather loudly.

But the key to the whole affair is that St. Nicholas is suddenly a story because journalists have linked it to a “bigger” and more “important” story. This tiny parish was not news at one point in time. It became news at another point in time and we all know why. That’s the news business. You see?

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Unorthodox wordings, to say the least

Trust me, I know that covering religion news is complicated, especially when you are dealing with ancient religious groups in which it seems that everything is encrusted with centuries worth of doctrine, tradition, rubrics and symbolism. However, facts and facts and words matter.

How do journalists justify basic errors? They shouldn’t even try.

As you may have guessed by now, this is another picky tmatt post about Eastern Orthodoxy.

Consider, please, the top of this story (free registration required) in the Financial Times about a very symbolic and emotional event in an ancient region that is today included in Turkey.

Five hundred Greek orthodox Christians have celebrated mass in the beautiful 1,600-year-old Sumela monastery in north-eastern Turkey, ending an 88-year ban on religious services at the site.

Conducted by Greek Orthodox Patriarch Dimitri Bartholomew I, the mass attracted orthodox Christians from Greece, Russia, Georgia, the US and Turkey to the monastery that sits on a ledge high in a cliff inland from the Turkish Black Sea port of Trabzon

The mass was conducted with the blessing of Turkey’s ministry of culture, which has funded an extensive restoration of the monastery that until a decade ago was in an advanced state of dereliction. The event, which was televised live around the world, occurred in contrast to attempts made last year to hold an orthodox mass at the site that were halted by ministry officials intent on upholding a ban on religious services at the monastery.

Where to begin (other than the issue of why the Turkish government can ban services in a monastery, shut down seminaries, etc.)?

First of all, I assume that this was an event of great importance for Eastern Orthodox — with a large “O” — Christians, not just the Greeks. After all, the story says precisely that a few lines later.

With that in mind, it is also important to note that Patriarch Bartholomew I is the “ecumenical patriarch,” the first among equals, of the shepherds of all of the Eastern Orthodox churches in a global communion. He is not the Greek Orthodox patriarch, in large part because his throne is in Istanbul. He is the Ecumenical Patriarch of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Oh, and his name is “Dimitrios,” not “Dimitri.”

Last but not least, the proper name for this Eucharistic service in the churches of the East is “Divine Liturgy,” not the “Mass.” I know that there is a tendency among journalists — note the same mistake at the top of this Asia News report — to assume that Catholic terms are used by all liturgical churches. For example, there are high-church Anglicans who often use the word Mass to describe the Holy Eucharist, while many other Anglicans do not. That’s confusing and I understand that.

However, the vast majority of Eastern Christians observe the Divine Liturgy, including those who are in communion with the pope of Rome. That is the proper name for this service in the Byzantine tradition.

So there are corrections to be made by the FT staff. Several of them.

Please.

Photo: The location of this monastery must be seen to be believed. Click here for a larger collection from Google Images.

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Hindu-esque Orthodox Christian commuters?

It’s amazing how much information can be packed into a 950-word newspaper story — and how much can be assumed and left unsaid.

As Exhibit A, I present a New York Times local story on an Indian church’s colorful tribute to Mary:

WEST SAYVILLE, N.Y. — Without doubt, many more people line the sidewalks to see the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Manhattan than to watch the St. Mary Malankara Indian Orthodox Church’s annual Assumption Day Parade, which began here on Sunday with the usual blowing of the kumbu horn and the dancing of the koladi by the congregation’s teenage girls, dressed in saris and banging sticks.

But the Indians’ parade has its longtime devotees: neighborhood residents, mostly, who say they look forward to the procession because it is practically the only time when the people of the congregation venture outside, not counting getting in and out of their cars.

None of St. Mary’s 100 or so parishioners live in West Sayville, a predominantly white, middle-class community on Long Island’s South Shore where in the last few decades a surfeit of empty church buildings has attracted various religious communities on wheels.

Go ahead and read the whole story and help me understand what it’s about.

Is it:

1. A spot news report on an annual religious celebration?

2. A trend piece on a commuter church?

3. A feature on a Christian community with “Hindu-esque” traditions?

4. A report on the notion of “arranged marriages” among Indian families in the U.S.?

I exaggerate to make my point, which is that this story covers a lot of ground in less than 1,000 words. Too much ground, in my opinion, resulting in inadequate treatment of all of the above subjects. Reading this piece is like eating a bite each of beef, chicken, pork and fish. Everything on the menu has potential. But none of it fills you up.

Let’s start with the annual Assumption Day Parade. Horns are playing. Teenage girls are dancing. Parishioners are marching through the neighborhood. But why? What is the religious symbolism of these rites? What is the spiritual significance?

We’re told that Malankara Christians “hew closely to Orthodox Christian liturgy,” but there’s no explanation of what that means. Near the end of the story, the writer contrasts the Indian Orthodox church with the building’s former Dutch Reformed tenants:

The Indian Orthodox congregation, with its bells and drums, had taken over what was once an outpost of the strictest Calvinist worship.

That’s, apparently, a reference to early Calvinists eschewing the use of musical instruments and advocating a cappella psalmody in worship. Now, I’m no expert on Indian Orthodox or Calvinist theology, but that 22-word sentence seems to leave so many questions unanswered. The biggest one in my mind: Are Indians unique among Orthodox in using bells and drums? I thought most of the world’s Orthodox worshiped without instruments. (Help me out here, Tmatt.)

On to the story’s second theme: commuter churches. Way up high, there’s that reference to the parishioners venturing outside only to to get in and out of their cars — except for the parade. Then there’s this:

The Indian congregants drive in from Queens, Brooklyn, western Nassau County and even New Jersey and Staten Island, to worship in a former Dutch Reformed Church building they bought in 1992. Inside, they speak Malayalam, the dialect of the Indian province where most have their roots, and they worship according to an Orthodox Christian liturgy that traces its origins to the teachings of the apostle Thomas.

At an hour or more, their road time is longer than the average trip to church, but national surveys show that most Americans travel farther to religious services than they used to, just as they journey farther to work. Except for Orthodox Jews, who are required to do so, hardly anyone walks to a house of worship anymore — a shift in the landscape that may be best illustrated by the now-unimaginable tableau of Norman Rockwell’s 1953 work “Walking to Church.”

Norman Rockwell? That’s all interesting background. It just seems like a weird detour in a story whose headline focuses on the religious holiday and parade — and then gives short shrift to explaining both. Wouldn’t it be better to save the commuter church angle for a story without so many other questions begging for attention?

For instance, these two paragraphs could use some work:

In West Sayville, the congregation and its parade have assumed a mysterious, almost mythical status, despite the procession’s official permit and the three Suffolk County police cars assigned to traffic control.

“If you didn’t actually see this with your own eyes, and some people around here haven’t, you might think I was making it up,” said Christopher Bodkin, a local historian and a former town councilman. “I mean it is so rococo, wonderful, Hindu-esque, with the flower petals, the girls holding the decorative parasols — everything but the elephants.”

OK, the church and its parade are mysterious and almost mythical. They are Hindu-esque. Please do elaborate and explain how. Unfortunately, the story never does. But it does veer off into the question of arranged marriages by Indians.

Perhaps the strangest part of the entire story is how little input it provides from actual church members.

We hear from neighbors. We hear from a former pastor of the church that used the building previously. But unless I’m missing something, this is the extent of direct quotes from a church leader:

Varghese Poulos, one of the congregation’s founders, said church members originally met in a rented basement in Astoria, Queens. Every Sunday, it had to be completely furnished — from the portable altar to the folding chairs.

Finding out that there was an empty church for sale, even an hour’s drive away, was “like a miracle to us,” he said.

How do church leaders respond to the neighbors’ concerns about the church’s lack of involvement in the community? How do the Christian faith and Indian culture intermingle in this congregation’s beliefs and practices? Is there anything “Hindu-esque” about this church?

That silence you hear is the Times failing to enlighten readers on the church’s perspective on such questions.

IMAGE OF A LEADERSHIP TRAINING CAMP, via Web site of the Northeast American Diocese of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church.

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Memory eternal, Father Matthew MacKay

The blogosphere and the wider world of digital social media is such a strange, strange place. It has its own unique joys and sorrows.

I am sure that most GetReligion readers have experienced that jolt of emotional electricity that you feel when you pop open a browser and, through Facebook or the taken-for-granted wonders of a search engine, you see that your inbox contains an email from a friend that you have not heard from since high school or college. Or you suddenly realize, by scanning your Facebook news feed, that some great joy or tragedy has befallen a faraway friend who, in hindsight, you realize has been a bit too quiet for several months.

Late last week, while jumping online for a new minutes in the North Carolina mountains, I pounded out a quick piece (“So is she a priest or not?“) about a basic issue in Associated Press style. The question was how to handle titles in front of the names of clergy in the ancient churches that, as a rule, call their priests “father.” With some segments of the Anglican Communion ordaining more and more women, it seems that “the Rev.” is now the safe, pro-stylebook choice.

I posted the piece and then headed back into my telephone and wifi free hiding place.

Thus, I was stunned a day or two later when I got back online and ran into this comment from a reader:

The Houston Chronicle this past week ran an obit on the passing of my parish priest at St. Joseph’s Orthodox Church and titled him the Rev. Friar Matthew MacKay. Fr. Matthew was an Archpriest in the Antiochian Orthodox Church. The church’s website listed him as The Very Rev. Fr. Matthew MacKay.

Friars do not exist in the Eastern Orthodox Churches; they’re a type of Roman Catholic monk. I would think that some very basic research could have corrected the problem before publication.

btw … the obit has been somewhat corrected on the paper’s website.

This came as a major shock, since Father Matthew was a friend of my own parish priest, Father Gregory Mathewes-Green and someone I greatly respected. I had not heard this stunning news and, there it was, in a comment on GetReligion.

For several years, my own family worshiped at St. Joseph’s every year at the time of the glorious service of the Feast of the Nativity, since we were in Houston for Christmas festivities with my mother and other loved ones in Texas. My children called him our “Christmas priest” at our “Christmas church.”

You can get a sense of the man, who has very proud of his Scottish heritage, in the top of the Chronicle obituary:

The Rev. Matthew MacKay, a pastor and co-founder of St. Joseph Antiochian Orthodox Church on Houston’s northwest side, died Monday. He was 54.

Born Nov. 18, 1955, MacKay graduated from The Citadel before joining the Marines. Through his friends in the Marines, MacKay met Lynn, his wife of more than 28 years. Just before his four years in the Marines began, the couple wed.

After the Marines, MacKay went to an Episcopal seminary and served as an Episcopal priest and Navy chaplain for seven years. They had two children, Patrick and Sean in 1989 and 1990. Sean was born while they were in Japan for the Navy.

After seven years, MacKay had a change of heart and moved to the Antiochian Orthodox Church because he felt it was the closest to the true church, Lynn said. He was ordained as an Orthodox priest in 1994. …

“I was born an orthodox Christian,” said Nouhad Bassila, a close friend of MacKay’s for nearly 16 years. “Growing up we don’t like converts as much. But because of Father MacKay I love converts now.”


I appreciated the story’s detail about Father MacKay’s attention to detail as he studied Byzantine architecture in order to help design his parish’s simple, but quietly gorgeous, sanctuary. I wish the reporter had heard about how the design incorporated a novel use of a chunk from a grain silo (I think that was the trick) as an affordable way to build the tower for the dome.

But what about the issue of Father Matthew’s proper title?

Alas, the newspaper’s website does not include a clear note explaining any correction that was made to the text and, worst of all, the cutline under the photo continues to say:

The Rev. Friar Matthew MacKay graduated from The Citadel before joining the Marines.

Clearly, someone thought that the church website’s use of “Fr.” stood for something other than the obvious — “Father.” Thus, it’s time to add another correction to the online version of the obituary. This is important, I think, because these kinds of basic mistakes have a terrible bite to them when they show up in obituaries. It seems like the newspaper is being indifferent, somehow.

Still the story is worth reading, although I still cannot believe that he is gone at this age with so many years of service ahead of him (click here for images from his ministry) in a parish that he helped create and that he dearly loved.

Memory eternal, Father Matthew.

Top photo: Via the St. Joseph’s website, taken by Douglas N. Burns.

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Put that cup of coffee down

I started to put this post up this morning but decided that it was not worth the risk. I did not want people spewing their coffee onto their keyboards.

But first, I realize that many GetReligion readers think we are hung up when it comes to urging journalists to follow the Associated Press Stylebook when it comes to use of the word “fundamentalist.” However, we will not be apologizing anytime soon for thinking that it would be good for journalists to use this word accurately, thus avoiding a label that has been turned into a vague slur word, in far too many cases.

So once again, what does the stylebook say?

“fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

“In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.”

And now, speaking of the Associated Press, here is the horrific case study for today.

A note to Eastern Orthodox readers: You have been warned. Please put down any beverage that is in your hand.

MOSCOW – A court in central Russia has sentenced a neo-Nazi leader to life in jail and imprisoned 13 others for four hate killings and multiple assaults.

The Tver city court said in a statement … that 22-year-old Dmitry Orlov led a cell of the Russian National Unity, a once-powerful organization that since 1990 has actively advocated white supremacy and Orthodox Christian fundamentalism. … In addition to the attacks, the court says, the defendants also owned arms and extremist literature and desecrated Muslim and Jewish cemeteries.

The Kremlin has recently cracked down on ultranationalists amid a spike in ethnic violence and killings of non-Slavs: mostly labor migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Now, trust me, I realize that there are ultranationalists in Russia and elsewhere — think Serbia — who like to march behind Orthodox banners and there are some clergy who have shamefully helped their cause with silence or, rarely, with direct action. But most of these monsters are not the kinds of people who care much about the doctrines and sacraments of Orthodox Christianity. They are often former Soviet-era secular thugs who are likely to be jailing and even torturing godly bishops who are working for peace. Again, think about Kosovo and Serbia.

So what is going on here? The AP has found some violent, neo-Nazi, white supremacy folks who are also into confession, fasting, the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”), alms giving and other conservative signs of Orthodox devotion, the “fundamentals” of the Orthodox faith?

If not, what in the world does the word “fundamentalist” mean in this context?

The key word is used later — “ultranationalist.” Fundamentalists are people who use the word to describe their beliefs. It’s a word defined by doctrine and practice.

I know that this is a short wire-service story. But, please, what are the Orthodox Christian beliefs and practices that define this alleged “fundamentalists”? Can we have one sentence, maybe two, that gives us some information instead of — again — a slur word?

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Blago’s ‘deep and abiding faith in God’

When I was still living in the Chicago suburbs, every time Rod Blagojevich’s name was mentioned, eyes were rolled. Who could believe that the great people of Illinois voted him into the highest position in the state not once but twice?

As you might recall, Blagojevich was arrested on federal corruption charges in 2008. Now he stands trial, and the jury began deliberations yesterday.

Politico released a quickie from Andy Barr that leaves much to be desired. He quotes Blagojevich as saying his fate is now “in God’s hands,” before quoting more from the press conference.

Blagojevich said he has put his faith in 12 members the jury currently deliberating his fate.

“[The jurors] are the ones who will decide and make the decision,” he said. “Patti and I have great confidence and faith in their judgment, common sense and decency. And ultimately in the final analysis Patti and I always have a deep and abiding faith in God.”

The end.

But what exactly is that faith in God is Blagojevich talking about?

I would’ve expected a little bit more from the Chicago Tribune, with the headline “‘Ultimately, it’s in God’s hands,’ Blagojevich says.” But the paper added nothing but a brief mention of the remarks, even though it’s the focus of the headline.

The Chicago Sun-Times took almost the exact same angle: “Case is ‘in God’s hands,” Blagojevich says.” The paper uses the buzz words for the headline without explaining it further.

Flash back to 2008 and you’ll find a few reports about his Serbian Orthodox faith. Here’s one of the first ones by Kate Shellnut for the Windy Citizen where she gives some historical background.

As a child, Blagojevich attended Old Holy Resurrection Serbian Orthodox Church on the Northwest Side, where he sang and played in the orchestra along with his brother Robert, the Chicago Sun-Times reported in 2006. Old Holy Resurrection, in Logan Square, is one of about ten Eastern Orthodox Churches in that area, catering to the city’s Serbian, Romanian, Belarusian, Ukrainian and Greek Orthodox populations.

Blagojevich now lives in Ravenswood Manor, but he said during an interview for his run for governor that he currently doesn’t attend a single church regularly. Still, as the son of Serbian immigrants to Chicago, he remains an icon for the Serbian-American population and remains active in their religious community. Back in April, he visited a Serbian Orthodox monastery and parish in the Third Lake, a northern suburb.

Mary Houlihan also did some reporting for the Chicago Sun-Times on the reaction from the Serbian Orthodox community.

Remember this quote from Ari Goldman last year?

As Rabbi Allen Schwartz of Manhattan recently told his congregation, the Madoff scandal broke just as the scandal Blagojevich scandal was breaking in Illinois. “Did you ever see a reference to Blagojevich’s religion?” the rabbi asked. “Yet we kept seeing Madoff described as Jewish.”

Now there’s no need to reference Blagojevich as Serbian Orthodox in every story, but when referencing his quotes about his faith, it seems necessary.

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