The 2015 Religion & Culture News Awards

At this time we are often antsy for the beginning of a New Year. We are filled with anticipation for the opportunities that the turn of a calendar page may bring. Too often, we do this to the neglect of the year that was, that which gave birth to the year to soon come in all its expectation. At the same time, we love our highlight reels looking back on the year about to end. 

In that spirit, these are the Second Annual Religion & Culture News Awards celebrating the best, and the worst, of religion news in 2015 submitted for your perusal. Enjoy and be sure to comment and share! 

*Read 2014's list, or explore 201320122011 or  2010’s lists.

Top Religion News Story

My colleagues in the Religion Newswriters Association voted for the top religion news story of 2015. By a narrow margin the Supreme Court's decision to legalize same-sex marriage in June took the top spot. However, from my perspective, the following news items -- taken together as a whole -- were the most powerful of the year: 

ISIS' expansion of their reign of horror beyond Syria and Iraq into Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, and France shook up fears of terror that were stoked by waves of migrants fleeing wartorn Syria. In the U.S. and Europe the twin spectres of terror and immigration awoke anti-Muslim rhetoric and calls for bans on Muslim migration. 

Unfortunately, these stories commanded the headlines in 2015. I wrote on these topics frequently. Too frequently in fact. Undoubtedly, these narratives will continue to dominate in the year to come. While I would hope such headlines would fade into the annals of history they will almost certainly remain relevant. The aim at is to provide as balanced, and thorough, a perspective as possible for you to learn, explore, and discern religion news stories throughout the world. 

Top 5 Books in Religion

American Qur’an by Sandow Birk

Having delved into Christianity with the Dante’s Divine Comedy series (Chronicle Books, 2006), artist Sandow Birk turned his attention to Islam in American Qur’an (Liveright, Nov.). In the book, one of PW's best books of 2015, Birk illustrates the Qur'an, using American life as the backdrop for the sacred writings—from the fields of Iowa to the beaches of Southern California. I had the opportunity to catch up with the graphic artist, who is not religious, to learn more about this nine-year project. READ MORE. 

Why I am a Salafi by Michael Muhammad Knight

Knight (The Taqwacores) invites readers into “the desert of the real Islam,” offering a deconstructionist take on Islamic texts, tradition, transmission, and theology and re-constructing what it means to be a Salafi in the 21st-century. READ THE REVIEW HERE.

One Nation Under Gods by Peter Manseau

Manseau takes on the stubborn myth that America is a “Christian nation” and re-constructs American history as a religiously pluralistic adventure. 

Salvation with a Smile by Phillip Luke Sinitierre

In Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity Phillip Luke Sinitiere — Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Sam Houston State University — courses the history, development, and manifestation of Lakewood's strengths and storm of debate surrounding it and placing its narrative firmly within the story of American Christianity in general. I had the opportunity to speak with him about the book, his research, and Lakewood's "salvation with a smile." READ MORE. 

American Apostles by Christine Heyrman

Through excerpts from missionary journals and evangelical periodicals, Heyrman uncovers early American evangelical encounters with the world of Islam surrounding the Mediterranean at the beginning of the 19th century in this fascinating study. READ THE REVIEW HERE. 

Honorable Mention: What is Islam? by the late Shahab Ahmed. The recently deceased scholar Ahmed (Ibn Tamiyya and His Times) offers a bold notion of what Islam is, one that stands in stark contrast to popular, traditionalist, and radical notions. Taking a cosmopolitan, far-reaching approach to millennia of Muslim history, poetry, music, science, philosophy, theology, and practice Ahmed reconceptualizes Islam as a hermeneutical engagement comfortable with the contradiction of its own diversity and immense variety. READ THE REVIEW HERE. 

Best Picture

Mad Max: Fury Road

In a war weary world facing the wraith of climate change and wrestling with big-man politics the world over, the film Mad Max: Fury Road came to stare us in the face with the worst of what we’ve become. Even so, it offered a vision of hope in the heart of the very worst — faith amidst the flames, tenacity trumping terror, hope in the depths of hell. 


Best New Religion

All hail Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption and blessings be upon its anointed Megareverend John Oliver. Yes, indeed, the host of Last Week Tonight on HBO, is now the head of a brand spankin' new religion. According to Brian Pellot of Religion News Service:  “The HBO satirist launched a tax-exempt church Sunday night to criticize the Internal Revenue Service’s hands-off approach to televangelist fraudsters who promise prosperity, at a price. ”

Oliver joins a long list of parody religions, "antibelief systems," and "authentic fakes" like Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Church of the Almighty Dollar, Disciples of the New Dawn, and the Discount House of Worship in registering a scathing satire of established religions in an effort to critique or call into question the proposed abuses, miscues, and false claims of religion. READ MORE HERE. 

Most Contentious Religious Event

The year’s biggest news story was also its most contentious as acts of terror coupled with fears of “the other” to throw gas on the fire of anti-Muslim rhetoric and Islamophobic sentiment. Political leaders pulled no punches in proposing blatantly xenophobic policies and the public provided fuel in popular support. As the year comes to a close there are headlines across the U.S. — from Texas to California, from Wisconsin to Florida — of molotov cocktails, graffiti, and arson attacks at mosques in the U.S. 

This is not the best of us. This is not in the spirit of religious freedom our nation was founded upon. We must continue to combat such bombastic religious illiteracy and hatred. It’s time for a ‘radical response’ to Islamophobia. 

Most Encouraging Religious Story

Even as hate seems to rule the headlines (on all sides), I had the pleasure of talking with Michal. She is doing inspiring peacemaking work with Christians and Muslims. She wrote of her calling, “I'm passionate about helping local churches effectively interact with the Muslim community around them; overcoming stereotypes/fears/misunderstandings, share faith and work together for the common good. I do this through my PhD research, the many grassroots events I organize with Muslims and Christians in California, and the documentaries I'm working on.” Her film “People of Peace” is an example and inspiration for us all. READ & WATCH MORE HERE. 

Funniest Religious Moment

Why so serious? Religion news is too often overwhelmed with severity and seriousness, writers and readers far too impressed with our mutual attempts to sound significant. Every once and a while, we need a good laugh. Here comes Jim Gaffigan to the rescue. 

I had the pleasure of being interviewed by the Religion News Service about Jim Gaffigan’s take on Catholicism. READ THE ARTICLE and then go watch the clips. They are simply fantastic fun! 



Top Posts from 

These were the top posts in terms of traffic this year. Check ‘em out and revisit the year that was! 

1) Blogging like an Academic

2) An Open Letter to Kim Davis (Megan Geiger guest post)

3) Hip-Hop Hijabis, Mos Def, & Muslim Rap Music Culture

4) Will Cuba soon get its first mosque? 

5) A.D. and Movies as the New Global Cathedrals

ALSO POPULAR: My new video series “Things You Missed in Religion Class.”