2014's Religion & Culture Top Stories & Awards

It’s that time of year when we produce our top lists of news stories and notables from the past year, reflecting on the most “intriguing people” of the year and counting down the best and worst of what was 2014. In the spirit of these lists and the soon-to-be-upon-us movie awards season, when awards are given to various people for all types of achievements, both marvelous and nefarious, these are the official 5th Annual Religion & Culture News Awards featuring the moments and individuals that gave shape to the religious landscape of 2014:

*Interested in 201320122011 or  2010’s lists?

Top Religion News Story of the Year – ISIS

Each year the Religion Newswriters Association, a consortium of religion newsies & commentators from across the U.S., vote on the top religion story of the year. I, along with them, decided that the self-styled Islamic State's reign of terror in Iraq and Syria was the top story of the year. Driving out the Iraqi army from Mosul and exiling ancient Christian communities, Yazidis and other religious minorities on threat of death, the United Nations, Christians and many Muslim groups strongly condemned their actions -- including the videotaped beheadings of American journalist James Foley and other hostages as inhumane and un-Islamic.

Read Ken's stories covering this event: 

*For more on religion & culture, follow @kchitwood

Most Encouraging Religious Moment – #IllRideWithYou

If the top story is a contentious and disheartening, there were also encouraging moments in the news this year. Indeed, there were many. My friends at Deseret News National compiled a list of the "11 of our most inspiring stories of 2014" and I've got my own top three "Most Encouraging Religious Moments": 

1. In the wake of the hostage situation at a Lindt Chocolate Cafe in Sydney's central business district Anti-Muslim sentiment flared. here were fears that Australian Muslims could become the targets of racially motivated retaliatory attacks. A social media campaign condemning Islamophobia under the hashtag #illridewithyou then took off. Australian Twitter users, sparked by TV content editor Tessa Kum's tweet of solidarity, offered to accompany Muslims wearing religious clothes on public transport as a gesture of support, all while communicating using the hashtag #illridewithyou.

2. As TIME magazine made clear with its choice of Person of the Year being the Ebola Fighters, Ebola was a major crisis this year. At the center of the response were health-care workers, many of them faith-based, who successfully remained at their West African posts as the Ebola epidemic spread. The treatment of American medical missionaries Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol gained wide attention.

3. And finally, faith-based groups help lead peaceful protests against racial injustice in the Ferguson, Mo., shooting case amidst violent outbursts after the police officer involved is not indicted. Protests also break out after a New York grand jury does not indict a police officer in another case of an unarmed black man dying in an altercation with white police officers.

*Read about Black Jesus and finding Jesus at the margins

Most Contentious Religious Event – Israel-Palestine Conflict

A cascading deterioration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict includes the kidnappings and murders of Israeli and Palestinian civilians (including a deadly attack on rabbis praying in a synagogue and the death of a Palestinian minister), an Israel-Hamas war that leaves more than 2,000 dead, and tensions over Temple Mount access and the Al-Aqsa mosque make the conflict in "the Holy Land" the most contentious religious event of the year. Even so, I am headed to Israel/Jordan in May and I invite you to come along to listen, learn, and make the journey with me. 

Best Picture – The Lunchbox

Last year was a tough call for these awards...there just weren't many options as Hollywood avoided spiritual movies like the plague. Well, that's probably because in 2014 they unleashed a locust torrent's worth of biblical, spiritually-themed movies. So much so that this year was anecdotally referred to as "The Year of the Biblical Movie!" So how to choose just one?

There was "Son of God" from Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, "God's Not Dead," which took evangelical churches and youth groups by storm, "Noah" and the controversy of its fanciful tale and atheist director Darren Aronofsky (of "Black Swan" fame), and the white-washed version of Moses, Aaron, the Hebrew people, and the Pharaoh of Egypt in "Exodus - Gods and Kings." Add to this already notable list Nicholas Cage's "Left Behind" remake, "The Identical," Sony pictures' "Heaven is For Real" starring Greg Kinnear, the African film "Timbuktu" about Islamic fundamentalists in Mali and you've got major contenders for this award. 

My top pick? "The Lunchbox." While my favorite movie growing up was "The Ten Commandments" with Charlton Heston, I couldn't quite go with "Exodus: Gods and Kings" and while "Noah" was good, it wasn't great. "The Lunchbox" is an extraordinary Indian movie about love, loss, and yearning that features the opening up of three main characters -- a Muslim, a Hindu, and a Catholic - in passion and friendship. More than one critic saw in this story about food culture and love another Indian tale -- that of interfaith relationships in a country too often marred with religious tension and violence. It deserves the award, and your time...go watch it. 

Top Five Books in Religion

I'm a self-professed bibliophile and a religion book reviewer for Publisher's Weekly, so you'll have to permit me to list a few again. Here are the top 5 religion books worth your while for page-turning interest if you haven't read them already:

.  Rebel Music: Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture by Hisham D. Aidi. I first ran into Aidi during my research on Latina/o Muslims in the U.S. He was writing about "the new hip-hop umma" and I was hooked. This book is a "bracing, fascinating, and utterly timely exploration of music, race, and cultural identity," in which "Aidi examines young European and American Muslims and their search for what he calls, 'a nonracist utopia.'"

2. America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation by American religion scholar Grant Wacker. More than a biography, this is an "appraisal of the roles Graham, the great [American] evangelist, played during his career which began during the late 1930s and extended through his last crusade in 2005." 

3. The Zimzum of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage by Rob and Kristen Bell. While Dave Harvey of the Gospel Coalition wrote, "if a mob amassed to burn Christian books, The Zimzum of Love would not be at risk" this is still a spiritual/psychological/mystical/scientific look at marriage and the connection between two human beings by an evangelical, albeit liberal, pastor in league with the spiritual powerhouse Oprah. It cannot be ignored. Read the FULL REVIEW here

4. The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God by Peter Watson. In this, "Watson offers a history of atheist to show that the topic du jour does in fact have a heritage. His tour of modern thought in a variety of disciplines offers exhilarating and unexpected connections."

5. That Religion in Which All Men Agree: Freemasonry in American Culture by David G. Hackett. I'm partial, Dr. Hackett is my faculty mentor in the University of Florida's PhD program in religion. Still, this book is a powerful study that weaves the story of Freemasonry into the narrative of American religious history in which Hackett argues that from the 1730s through the early twentieth century the religious worlds of an evolving American social order broadly appropriated the beliefs and initiatory practices of this all-male society.

Most Entertaining Intersection of Religion & Culture – The Pope's Magazine

In 2013 Pope Francis was the most interesting man in the world. Suitably, he soon graced the cover of Rolling Stone magazine and now - he has his own glossy. The magazine is titled Il Mio Papa (My Pope) hit newsstands with a 69-page first edition of photos of the pope, his life story, and his mission in the Vatican. Pope Francis found it "offensive." Hear more from NPR here. 

Best New Religion - Yeezianity

Yes, the First Church of Kanye West. For realz. As HuffPost reported, "The 36-year-old rapper has in fact inspired a new religion called Yeezianity, in which followers believe "that the one who calls himself Yeezus is a divine being who has been sent by God to usher in a New Age of humanity," according to the official website."

Effectively, throw Yeezus (Kanye West) in for Jesus in Christianity and voila, you have your own new religion. There are also the new religions' Five Commandments: 

1. All things created must be for the good of all.
2. No human being’s right to express themselves must ever be repressed.
3. Money is unnecessary except as a means of exchange.
4. Man possesses the power to create everything he wants and needs.
5. All human suffering exists to stimulate the creative powers of Man.

Runner-up: Remember the movie "10 Things I Hate About You"? Remember actor Andrew Keegan playing Joey Donner? Maybe, maybe not. Like you, Keegan has moved on...to start his own New Age religion -- Full Circle. He told VICE magazine, Full Circle is "advanced spiritualism." He extrapolated, "Synchronicity. Time. That's what it's all about....Whatever, the past, some other time. It's a circle; in the center is now. That's what it's about." Okay Joey, maybe it was all that "nose spray" you talked about in "10 Things I Hate..."

Most Awkward Religious Moment – Monster Drink Satanism

Closely related to the "new religion" category is this little gem, wherein a woman explains how Monster energy drink is actually the mark of the beast -- 666 -- a portent of the anti-Christ and the impending apocalypse. Awkward. 

Most Outspoken Atheist(s) – Frank Schaeffer

Son of renowned Christian author and theologian Francis Schaeffer, Frank Scaeffer is no new news. He is a gregarious and outspoken atheist who "believes in faith." But this year he got embroiled in a tit-for-tat with Christianity Today and evangelical leader Ed Stetzer over a story about Bart Campolo, son of famed Christian leaders Tony and Peggy Campolo, leaving the Christian faith. On top of all this, Frank came out with a new self-published book this year, titled Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to give love, create beauty and find peace. 

Top Posts from KenChitwood.com

Thanks to you, the readers of the Religion & Culture news at KenChitwood.com, this page launched successfully in August and continues to grow. While some of the above stories were top hits on the site, here are some other popular blog posts from the past year, just in case you missed them:

  1. Five Facts You Need to Know about Iraq, ISIS, and its Religious Minorities

  2. Being an Apostolic Fashionista -- a guest post from Megan Geiger

  3. Can Christians Celebrate Diwali? Indian Leaders Disagree

  4. Of Presbyterians and Whiskey: the role of religion in the Scottish independence vote

  5. Don't Leave Your Church 

En Memoriam 

To those notable religious figures who lost their lives this year, we wish you, and your loved ones, peace:

Rev. Dr. Myles Monroe -- Minister and motivational speaker

Fred Phelps -- Founder of Westboro Baptist Church

Jamie Coots -- Snake-handling preacher

Sheikh Salim Bakari Mwarangi -- Kenyan Muslim cleric

*For more on religion & culture, follow @kchitwood