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

An Epically Sacred Thanksgiving

In the U.S., Thanksgiving is a sacred meal. It can also be an EPIC meal. 

At least for this not-so-Jewish, Jewish guy named Harley Morenstein.


Harley is the ring leader of the internet sensation turned FYI reality TV show, "Epic Meal Time." The goal with Epic Meal Time? Craft extremely high-calorie meals, preferably with an over abundance of meat products, especially bacon. Epic Meal Time has taken on just about every challenge, from a Christmas meat house to a fast-food lasagna. What about Thanksgiving you ask? 

Their menu from a couple years ago include a turkey, duck, chicken, cornish hen, quail amalgamation wrapped in bacon and placed inside a roasted pig (that's a bird inside a bird inside a bird inside a bird inside a bird inside a pig, for those wondering) with bacon croissant stuffing. It rang in around 80,000 calories. This year, they made a "Maize Dog" appetizer that involved duck and venison sausage (aka "Pilgrim Meat Log") deep fried in corn batter. Voila, instead of a "corn dog," you got a "maize dog." Happy Epic Thanksgiving. 


In the process of creating such beautiful Thanksgiving mash-up meals, the boys did do some homework about the menu at the first Thanksgiving. Which raises the question — just what did the first Thanksgiving meal include? 

Robert Tracy McKenzie, in his veil lifting work The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from Historyshatters a lot of misconceptions about what the first Thanksgiving was really all about. 

*Read Stephanie Fenton's history-packed article on Thanksgiving traditions HERE.

One of McKenzie's contributions to setting the Thanksgiving record straight, and tenderizing some sacred cows (perhaps sacred turkeys) along the way, is when he goes over the menu that first Thanksgiving. 

McKenzie wrote, "almost nothing we associate with a traditional Thanksgiving meal would have been on the menu." While wild turkey was perhaps on the menu, most likely duck, goose, and venison got on there too. On the side the Pilgrims may have added fish, mussels, and clams from the frothy seas and the traditional Thanksgiving eel fresh caught from local tributaries. Trimmings would have included Indian corn (succotash mashed), collard greens, parsnips, turnips, carrots, onions, spinach, and cabbage. Sadly, there would have been no sweet potatoes (and certainly no marshmallows or brown sugar), no cranberry sauce, and (aghast!) no pumpkin pie.

Thus, as McKenzie concluded, those striving for tradition these days should serve turnips and eels this Thanksgiving. I guarantee you Martha Stewart will not have a recipe for "Mom's Favorite Thanksgiving Eel."

What McKenzie did not talk about was the very sacred nature of some of these foods for the indigenous peoples of the Americas, including the Wampanoag. Too often, the story of the first Thanksgiving in 1621 is told solely from the Pilgrim's point of view, and when the Wampanoag are included, it is usually in a brief or distorted way.

While we may appreciate how Thanksgiving came to a founding story in America's conception of its manifest divine history and of the American civil religion, what of the sacred intimations of that 1621 meal "facing east from Indian country?" (Richter, 2001)

For the indigenous peoples of the Americas, cosmology came from the ground up. Cosmogonies and sacred myths were marked in the ground and various tribes understood their people as emerging from the earth. Concomitantly the indigenous peoples of the Americas shared a common philosophy that respected nature and its cycle (as hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists this makes sense), believed in using and respecting the bounty of land and sea so that it was "preserved for the seventh generation of the unborn," and held to giving thanks to the spirits for everything they were able to farm, collect, and hunt. 

No wonder then that many foods became sacred to indigenous people of the Americas.  As the peoples harvested corn, beans, squash, avocados, cotton, and chilies each of these plant were believed to be "imbued with sacred powers and came to play important roles in the mythology, calendar, ritual, costumes, ancestor worship, and performances" of many indigenous religions (Carrasco, 2014). In North America, the foods considered sacred were animal foods, rich in fat. According to Beverly Hungry Wolf, pemmican made with berries “was used by the Horns Society for their sacred meal of communion.” Boiled tongue was an ancient delicacy, served as the food of communion at the Sun Dance. A blood soup, made from a mixture of blood and corn flour cooked in broth, was used as a sacred meal during the nighttime Holy Smoke ceremonies and bear fat was central to strength for warriors before battle. 

Most likely you won't be serving blood soup, bear, turnip, eel or sacred beans this Thanksgiving. Still, many of the foods on your plate have been considered sacred at one time or another. Here is a breakdown of the sacred nature of your Thanksgiving fare. So, as you give thanks, to whatever god, power, or person you prefer, remember just how sacred and epic of a meal you are about to enjoy. Happy Thanksgiving! 


Not only do some Native American tribes view the turkey as a symbol of abundance and fertility, but wild turkeys were sacrificial guests of honor in fertility and thanksgiving ceremonies. To this day,  Creek tribes still practice the turkey dance during its annual fire festivals. Down south, the turkey was thought to be sacred to ancient Mexican cultures.  Aztecs, Mayans, and Toltecs viewed the turkey as a "jeweled bird" and also referred to it as the "Great Xolotl." Elsewhere, in South Africa, turkeys are used in sanghoma ceremonies. 

Stuffing (apples)

Beyond being associated with 'the Forbidden Fruit' of the Garden of Eden (most likely a pomegranate, by the way), the apple has long represented eternal life, resurrection, and reproduction. From the Romans to the Druids to modern day pagans, apples are thought to be a regenerative source of spiritual power and able to ward off evil spirits and demons. 

Deviled Eggs

Haven't you wondered where the "Deviled" name came from? Yes, these are sinfully delicious (at least when my mom makes them), but they are known as "Deviled" because the word "devil" came to be applied to spicy, highly seasoned, dishes and foods starting in 1786. The spiciness was associated with the heat of hell and some people took this so seriously that at some church potlucks in the Midwest U.S. these devilish delicacies are renamed "angel eggs." It just doesn't have the same ring, does it? 


To the native tribes of the Eastern and Southwestern U.S., "corn was the all-nourishing sacred food, the subject of innumerable legends, and the central theme of many rituals." (Erdoes and Ortiz, 1984) The Penobscot people have a revered story of "the Corn Mother" and the Hopi say, "Moing'iima makes corn, everything grows on his body." 

In Mesoamerica, natives compared the creation of human life with the creation of corn. Indeed, the Maya believed that the human body was composed of white and yellow corn.

Sweet potato

Although this sweet delicacy was not at the original Thanksgiving and was not introduced to North America until much later, the sweet potato (known as kumara) is an important food in the cosmology of the Maori people of New Zealand (Aotearoa). It is believed that the umara was originally cultivated in the sky by the star Whanui or the god Maru, cousin of Maui. Carefully revered by the Maori because of its sacred genesis, there were ceremonies and rites to be observed if the kumara gods (stone statues set by tuber plots) were to watch over the crop and care for it. 

Pumpkin Pie

While the flaky pie crust may be heavenly and the whip cream a sweet delight, pumpkin is a sacred food for many. It is used as a sacred offering to Oshun in Santeria and other Yoruba derived practices of the Caribbean and Latin America. It is said that pumpkin seeds, because of their "waste not" nature are considered a delicacy by the Orisha who reigns over love, intimacy, beauty, marriage, wealth, and diplomacy. Sometimes you may even see pumpkins set at shrines dedicated to Our Lady of Charity, who represents Oshun in Santeria infused Catholicism in the Caribbean. 

Of course, you may have also heard of the divine intimations and religious symbolism behind Linus' unwavering devotion to The Great Pumpkin in the peanuts special. 

Cranberry sauce

Beyond being protected as "sacrosanct" on my Thanksgiving tales, cranberries (associated with crane birds) represented fidelity in China and Japan. Yet, it is the Hartung people of North America and a small, but faithful band, of "Cranlog" devotees who show the most reverence to this sacred Thanksgiving tradition. As one devotee sang, "Hark, the heavens open and sing the joys of Cranlog!" 

Happy Thanksgiving! 

*Follow Ken for more on religion, food, culture, and #FaithGoesPop

This is what you get when you mix Ylvis with Gangnam Style

Seriously, there is nothing religious about this at all, but I'm pretty sure this video is going to gain a cult following really quick. 

There simply are not words to describe what happens in this video, but your life will never be the same after this.