Televising Religion

In broad strokes, religion became more important for people in East-Central Europe over the last 20 years and less important for people in Western Europe. According to the European Values Survey, church attendance jumped in Poland, Romania, and Slovakia whereas it declined throughout the West. Even in places where church attendance in the east remained very low – Bulgaria, Slovenia, Hungary – the percentage of people who consider God important in their life increased over that same period.

The Czech Republic, however, has remained consistently non-religious. Only 8 percent of the population attended weekly church services in 2008 (compared to 58 percent of Poles and 38 percent of Portuguese). Only 26 percent considered God important in their lives. And only 5 percent expressed confidence in churches, which put the Czech Republic below the Netherlands and Switzerland.

The Czech Republic often heads the list of most secular country in Europe.

“The apparent lack of interest in traditional forms of Christianity is accompanied by the massive popularity of what sociologists call ‘invisible’ or ‘alternative’ religion and what could be best described as a belief in magic,” writes Dana Hamplova in The Guardian. “Czechs may not be very enthusiastic churchgoers but many of them easily accept the idea that fortune-tellers can predict the future, lucky charms bring good fortune or that the stars might influence their lives.”

Michael Otrisal confirmed this insight. A pastor with the Church of the Brethren, Otrisal now contributes religious programming to the main Czech television station. “We have very strong opposition to organized religion,” he told me in an interview last February at the TV station in Prague. “So, we are more anticlerical than atheist. If you talk about spiritual impulses or issues here you can find a lot of ears to listen. But the Church is not something that the general public is interested in. There are various examples of strange religiosity blossoming here — sects and funny teachings — which are the dark side of this anti-clerical position. The people are not trained to distinguish between the fake and the real.”

I met Otrisal in 1990 when he was just at the point of considering a shift to journalism. He invited me to a youth meeting at his church where I listened to a guitar-playing pastor and discussions of Bible study. These days, he has brought this kind of mix of religion and entertainment to television. But it wasn’t initially an easy sell – either to the Church or to the TV executives.

“The discussion with the churches was a process,” he explained. “They expected that religious TV meant more Christian services. This is the core of our spiritual life, but in my opinion it doesn’t really work on television. We had to struggle on both sides, with the churches and with the TV company. We were working in a crossfire. But I think we managed to convince the Church that we are not a fifth column of Church dissidents on TV, and I hope we convinced TV that we are not working here as missionaries but as Christian journalists. We’re not offering an ideology but simply another perspective.”

We talked about the challenges of being a pastor under Communism, his involvement in the revolutionary changes in 1989, his best and worst programming moments, and why he agrees with Soren Kierkegaard that when everything is Christian, nothing is Christian.

 

The Interview

 

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

 

It’s far, far away now. It’s a historical memory, and as we know, there is some selection in our memory. Of course it was a great day because this Wall was a symbol of divided Europe. And I believe in the role of symbols: they are important in this technical world of ours. It sent a signal that a new era is coming. Even if we didn’t know what would really happen in these years, whether for instance we would have reform Communism or something else. But it was a symbol that freedom was coming.

 

You were a pastor at that time.

 

I was a pastor at that time. I saw it mostly from this perspective. In those days I didn’t know anything about my future. I didn’t know that I would one day be making religious television. That was only a dream for us because the media was part of the official propaganda and religion didn’t have a chance to be part of it. But quite soon after the changes, this idea came up.

I was known as a video-obsessed pastor. The Ecumenical Council of Churches sent me to the new department of religion in Czech television. That was in 1990. We broadcast the first discussion of religion at the end of November 1990.  I was the moderator. I’ll never forget it. It was a sheer miracle that we succeeded with this discussion. No one was professional, not me as a moderator or these people from the churches who had never before been in front of the cameras. It was very adventurous. Since 1991, we’ve had a regular program called Christian Sunday.

 

The Church played a major role in the transformation in East Germany. What role did churches play in Czechoslovakia prior to 1989? Did they provide a safe area for people? Did they encourage free thought?

 

Here it was a bit more complicated because the division between church and society has been much broader than in East Germany. There, the Church could run some hospitals, do some social work. So they were known as people who could offer something. But here we have been pushed to the private sphere where we have channeled our religious needs. Of course even in spite of that there were many people based in Church life who were also quite important in social life. But it was just several individual personalities, not the Church as such.

After the Velvet Revolution there were great illusions about the possible role of the Church in society. Structurally I can’t say that the Church as an organization played a key role in the changes. But most of the revolutionary actors were somehow connected to the Church.

 

The Catholic Church was a major impetus behind changes in Slovakia. Was there much discussion between the Protestant and Catholic churches before 1989?

 

We were pushed together in a kind of defensive ecumenism. We were surrounded by “enemies,” so we joined together. It wasn’t voluntary ecumenism. But even this outside pressure can make nice flowers blossom. For instance, I was a member of an official ecumenical praying group of pastors. We used to meet each Thursday: representatives from all the churches — Catholic, Czech Brethren, all kinds of confessions and congregations. So, outside pressure can sometimes create very nice opportunities.

Generally speaking the Communist regime didn’t want the churches to be united. So it tried to divide them, giving some chances to one church to do something and denying another church. We know this strategy of divide and conquer from history. In this sense, even ecumenism was part of dissent.

 

When did you decide to become a pastor?

 

Formally it was very natural because my father was a pastor. But the story is not so simple. My parents were divorced, and I was living with my mother in Prague. My father was a pastor in Moravia, relatively far away. I hadn’t been officially in touch with the Church, just during the summer holidays when I visited my father. So, the influence of the Church on my decision was not direct.

My decision was connected to what happened here in 1968. I was just finishing high school when the Soviet troops occupied Czechoslovakia. In 1969 I was in Brno, the capital of Moravia, and participating in some demonstrations. I was arrested by the police and sent to a prison in Brno, but just for one day. At the crucial moment in suppressing the demonstrations, the civil guards helped the police. They were a kind of revolutionary tool of the Communist Party. The members themselves weren’t very revolutionary: it was a matter of survival to be part of such group. In any case, they behaved really awfully toward us, even more awfully than the police. Probably there was fear behind it. I could even imagine how they would play with their grandchildren at their summerhouses like normal people. But in the pressure of the situation, they behaved like beasts.

That was a crucial moment for my decision. At first I was angry with these guards. But in the second round of my thinking, I realized that I might act the same way they did. I could be a normal person in a normal situation. But in the pressure of the situation, without any foundation inside you, you could be just like them. That explains my decision to study theology. I had a childhood history inside the Church with my father as a pastor. But that didn’t determine my decision. It was when I realized that man needs a grounding that is deeper than natural goodness in order to act good under pressure.

 

Did you have to do military service?

 

No, that was part of the game. In those days, you could receive a small ID card saying that you couldn’t serve in the army. I received it because of my allergies. I can’t even serve as a pastor in the army.

 

What was it like to be a student shortly after the Soviet invasion? It was a difficult time here. What was it like in university?

 

Our theological faculty, the Comenius Theological Faculty, was not part of the university, but of course it was academic work. It was in a certain sense difficult. We lived in a situation of toleration: not freedom but toleration. You never knew what was tolerated and what was not. There were some struggles with the students, who were more revolutionary than our teachers. The teachers knew the situation from behind, the pressures. Some of them, we were told afterwards, were connected with the police. I wouldn’t blame them. It was just another level of what every pastor had to be. We all were investigated by the police. But there was a difference between a collaborator and someone who is regularly investigated. But that was a part of the game. It’s very hard to talk about this because, viewed from the present situation, the fear had no foundation. The power of the police was not as big as they tried to convince us it was. But to live in a situation in which you had no hope of change during your lifetime: this was very hard. I can understand that people tried to find some accommodation to it. It doesn’t mean that they were collaborators. But they had to accommodate.

Some students had to leave the faculty before finishing. But if I speak about myself, I played the game. When you started your career as a pastor you had to negotiate with the office responsible for controlling the churches. You had to sign a document that you would not do anything against the socialist system. Without that signature, you couldn’t be a pastor at all. In my case, I could say to my conscience and to my friends that I was not there to do something against the system. I would simply try to do my best. Whether it was against the system or not was not my problem.

We had some seminars with people from the dissident movement. We organized concerts with protest singers. That was my way of doing things. It was much better in Prague because of the anonymity. And I was a pastor in Prague, so that was my advantage, compared to my colleagues in the countryside. Here you could invite famous composers to talk about modern music. You could push step by step to have freer discussions about subjects. Everybody had as much freedom as they dared to take. And that was the degree of freedom that I had.

 

Did the government put any pressure on you to stop any of those activities?

 

Yes, of course. When we organized a festival of church groups in a parish near this building, we also invited a well-known protest singer. I was called to the office here in Prague and received an official paper saying that it was a warning and I’d be punished next time. Even that was rather funny, because in those days my father was a bishop and had to be present. The officer, meanwhile, was not a very ambitious man. He told me as we were sitting there, “I have to tell you that it’s not very nice what you did. So please don’t do it again.” That was the situation in the 1980s, when there was some Gorbachev perestroika in the air. If you were not part of the real dissent, then it was not what I would call oppression. It was more like constant harassment.

 

Were the events of November 17 a surprise for you, or did you expect something after the fall of the Berlin Wall?

 

Even after the fall of the Wall, it was not quite certain that our country would go in the same direction. Our Communism was much closer connected to Czech history, to the long history of leftist orientation, of concern for social issues. The Communists used this history for their own purposes. That’s why there were many people more closely connected to this kind of historical memory than in other countries. I was not sure that our dissidents could convince most of the nation to make a revolution. But thank God it happened. But it was a surprise that it happened.

 

Do you remember when you heard about the student demonstration on the 17th?

 

I remember. My wife was at the demonstration with our friend. Our families were represented by women. In these days, they had nothing to lose. For me, it was not an easy decision to be part of it, in the first stage. Afterwards, of course, we were many times in the crowds in Wenceslas Square. But at the beginning, our women represented us in the struggle.

Very soon after they left came the most brutal attack of the police. Even today, during the recent presidential election, we come back to this moment. One of his Zeman’s collaborators was a general in these days. It was his responsibility to bring the army to Prague and stop the revolution or not. Because of the Internet, we can see his speech at the meeting of the Communist Party. Until the last days, it was not sure whether they would use the power of the army and the police. It was still a risky situation.

On the other hand, we are the country of Good Soldier Svejk, which means we can make fun of everything: God, the president, whatever. Even within the Communist Party there were many people who didn’t believe in Communism at all. They were just doing it as a matter of survival. In spite of that, what happened on November 17 and immediately afterwards was a risk and an adventure.

 

Do you remember the first interaction that you had with your church after the changes began? For instance, did you give a particular sermon in which you tried to understand what was going on and talk to your parishioners about it?

 

We as Christians were a crucial part of this process. I reflected on these changes in my sermons. It was impossible not to. We also had some spontaneous ecumenical meetings, for instance at the Brevnov monastery. We were invited, me as a Protestant pastor and some Catholics priests, to a special ecumenical service to welcome the coming freedom. We did do something, but we don’t know what the effects were.

 

I met you as part of a journalism delegation from Czechoslovakia visiting London in March 1990. But at that point you hadn’t made a decision to go into journalism.

 

I hadn’t yet made a decision to step into journalism. I simply wanted to do religious programming on television. I saw this as a continuation of my pastoral care. It was only after some months and years that I recognized it was a very different effort. At the beginning I didn’t want to join the club of journalists. Still, I was happy to be part of this small delegation of journalists. The trip, along with other meetings, helped me get rid of this naive idea that I could simply do my pastoral care on TV. Journalism and pastoral care are very different tasks. The visit to Britain was one of the first moments when I saw that my position would be different.

 

You said that it was a process to bring religious programming to Czech TV. Did someone in Czech TV approach you or did you approach Czech TV?

 

It was part of official negotiations. It started with an attempt by the bishops’ council within the Ecumenical Council of Churches. This organization was part of the structures of Communist ideology. And it was not easy to establish the programming. There was even some natural fear that a new ideology would replace the former one, that the red ones would be replaced by black ones.

 

When you say black, you mean…?

 

Black represents clergy. That was a fear here, and there was some defensiveness within the TV station. But my Catholic colleague from the praying group and I went to the TV station, and we shared the same perspective about the task of religion in media. We were not coming to present Catholic or Protestant ideology. We wanted to provide the Christian views of things. Even the name of the program — Christian Sunday — was revolutionary compared to other East Bloc countries. We didn’t produce a Catholic Sunday, a smaller Protestant Sunday, an even smaller orthodox Sunday, according to the proportions of the churches, as they did in Hungary. From the beginning, we tried to produce Christian programs. We didn’t check that Catholics speak five minutes, Protestants three minutes, and so on. We were not like army units fighting for our space and then beginning our ideological influence over TV.

We also, and this was just an intuition, decided to start on a light note. We tried to bring humor in at the beginning, which is very important in the Czech situation. Anything that lacks humor won’t work here.

 

How did you do that?

 

That was part of moderating. Our dialogues were not about subjects full of theology. They were about life. We also shared the view that Christianity is not a matter of belief based on pillars of dogma. Rather, Christianity is a way of life. It’s how you really behave.

 

How long was the program on Sunday?

 

I have our first broadcast at home. It’s very funny. I use it a lot with my Western colleagues. It was a live program, which is the cheapest way of doing TV. There was no money to do religious broadcasting in those days. We had one priest and one pastor sitting in the studio. Suddenly the program started. Since the lights on the camera weren’t working, we didn’t know that the show had already started. So you see 10-15 seconds of people waiting for a signal. That was the beginning of our religious broadcasting.

We started with humor. I was mostly responsible for these light notes. My intuition is that the mother of television is entertainment and the father is information. In those days, we had five minutes of speaking in the studio, 8-10 minutes of a cheaply made documentary, then music from the archives of Czech TV. This was not a concept that could work at all. Even we as pastors knew that it wouldn’t work this way.

So we made the program more talkative. It worked in those days because viewers were interested in seeing how many important people they knew who were in fact Christian. We had a one-hour program. Over the years, it got shorter and shorter until finally it is now 26 minutes. That’s absolutely enough, at least for the Christian Magazine, which I am responsible for.

Even the discussion with the churches was a process. They expected that religious TV meant more Christian services. This is the core of our spiritual life, but in my opinion it doesn’t really work on television. We had to struggle on both sides, with the churches and with the TV company. We were working in a crossfire. But I think we managed to convince the Church that we are not a fifth column of Church dissidents on TV, and I hope we convinced TV that we are not working here as missionaries but as Christian journalists. We’re not offering an ideology but simply another perspective.

 

Did the separation of the Czechoslovakia have a major effect on your broadcast?

 

Not really. Even in the socialist days, there was one TV station, Czechoslovak TV, but five studios: Prague, Brno and Ostrava in the Czech Republic; and Bratislava and a small studio in Kosice in Slovakia. Of course, the culture of the Czech Republic was very different from the culture of Slovakia. Even the format of religious broadcasting was quite different. There were two separate concepts of religious broadcasting since the beginning. Of course we knew each other and we were in touch, but we were doing our own things. So, the separation didn’t affect our work very much.

 

We talked 23 years ago about how secular Czechoslovakia, especially the Czech Republic, was. I’ve been told that Czech Republic and Denmark are the most secular countries in Europe. What is it like to do this work in such a secular society?

 

It depends on what you call secular. In a certain sense it’s true. But we are not an atheistic country. We have very strong opposition to organized religion. So, we are more anticlerical than atheist. If you talk about spiritual impulses or issues here you can find a lot of ears to listen. But the Church is not something that the general public is interested in. There are various examples of strange religiosity blossoming here — sects and funny teachings — which are the dark side of this anti-clerical position. The people are not trained to distinguish between the fake and the real.

 

Can you give an example of that?

 

You can see a lot of spiritualists on television doing things with their hands and their “mental powers.”

 

Even today?

 

No, this was at the beginning. But you can see people visiting all these fortunetellers and Tarot readers. But I’m not pessimistic. Together with Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, I say that when everything is Christian then nothing is Christian. I don’t believe in the Polish way of massive Christianity — 99 percent of Poles are Catholic. But what does that say about the level of political culture? Almost nothing. They are all Catholic, but the situation is the same. I’m not hoping for these numbers. Today, like it was during Communism, only the people who really want to go to church and take part in life of church do so. We’re not big in terms of numbers. But we have small, lively Christian congregations, which can offer the proper Christian life, not Christianity as a part of the social system.

 

Islam has become a bigger issue these days. Also, Milos Zeman has made some comments about Islam. Have you addressed Islam in your programming?

 

To be honest, we don’t make it a big issue. Maybe it’s partly because Islam is still not important or strong in this country. As you know, after World War II we were “purified” in terms of nationality. We are not really trained to cooperate with people of other faiths and races. We have some Muslims here, of course. But they are still rather hidden, under the surface of the popular perceptions. Because of the natural xenophobic features of our character, they are of course seen as “strange foreigners.” In the evangelical faculty, there are some people who try to bring the perspective of the proper, original Islam to Czech thinking. They’ve organized workshops on how to deal with this issue, how to understand each other, and obstacles to perceptions on both sides. There are many prejudices, of course. But the process of cultivating our thinking has slowly started.

 

What are you doing now? You have a 26-minute show you have to produce every week?

 

Not every week. We share our studio with Brno and Ostrava. Each Sunday we have a slot for these programs. Partly it’s documentaries, partly it’s a popular and quite successful one-on-one talk show moderated by one Protestant pastor and one Catholic priest. At the beginning, it wasn’t going to be a religious show, just a show moderated by a pastor and a priest: a show about humanity. Afterwards we accepted that these people are able to go deeper into the basics of hope and faith inside of everybody and not just believers. The Christian Magazine, meanwhile, focuses on matters that are on the boundary between Church and state. Then we have live services, about 19 a year, on special occasions such as Christmas and Easter.

 

You were saying that you have a certain frustration around form versus content. Can you explain that with a couple of examples?

 

This is not just something with television. It is a part of the life of the whole society. We are not able to produce convincing ideas. Instead, our space for ideas is inhabited by rules, order, boxes. We try to organize things that are not organizable. It’s a common disease. Television is not outside of this game. We struggle over new formats, but we don’t have time to discuss what we are doing and why we are doing it.

For instance, among our group of religious broadcasters, we don’t meet to discuss what should be done better. We just make slots. We make the pictures move colorfully on the screen. And that’s all. I can fight for ideas, for content. I can struggle over being controlled or I can be blamed for making mistakes: but in the area of content. I’m not able to fight over form. This is a process so common that even people who think the same way as I do are not able to work together to address the issue. It’s like a tsunami. What can you do? Just run up the hill.

 

What do you think is missing, from the point of view of content?

 

In the field of religious broadcasting, we’re missing a deeper discussion between the different concepts of our political culture and even of our spiritual culture. Which means that even Church representatives have to be open to very complicated questions. We have a small but specific group of atheists. We have artists and philosophers. But there is no discussion between the Church and these groups. I will try to introduce a new format at the beginning of the year, a place where the Church invites different people – artists, philosophers – and then mostly listens to them. Then maybe together we can do something. But first listen. The Church didn’t accept this plan. It feels that it must preach the Gospel.

 

What would you say is the segment that you are proudest of from your years of broadcasting?

 

One of the ones I’m proudest of is the successful meeting with church, artists, and scientists that took place in the Prague Cathedral, which is a sacred national place. We invited a Gypsy group. We invited a popular singer who also has the prayer Our Father in his repertoire. This singer started by talking about the problems with his faith. Then he said, “What can I do but pray?” At that moment he started the prayer, not as a church official, but as a singer. It was very symbolic. He was deeply moved to have this chance to be in the cathedral. We got a very positive response from the artists, but not so much from the churches.

With my program Christian Magazine, I have tried to create a window to the outside for those on the inside and a window to the inside for those on the outside.

 

So, you are a window.

 

Yes, I try to be a window, as transparent as possible.

 

Have you changed your mind about anything over the years since 1989 in your philosophy or your worldview?

 

We all have been pushed through a process. The problem of the socialist society was not that we were not educated enough. We had a very good education. But we were not part of modern structures. Even these days, as a member of European boards of Christian communication and so on, I felt that this is my handicap. I am not able to use the structures. Since 1989, this is what we step by step have been educated in — how to join the clubs, how to channel our ideas. Along the way, we learned that in all politics it’s not enough to have good ideas — you have to convince people that you have good ideas.

 

The last questions are quantitative. When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed here in this country, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10 with 1 being least satisfied and 10 being most satisfied?

 

I would say that we are halfway, at least in terms of political culture. It’s not been easy, and it’s not been overnight. It would be 5 or 6.

 

The same time period, the same scale: but your own personal life.

 

I can say that I’m very much happy that I’m living in a free society. But of course some trends have made me a little bit skeptical. I would say the same: 5 or 6.

 

Looking into the near future, the next two or three years, how do you evaluate the prospects for the Czech Republic, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?

 

In these terms, I’m rather optimistic. We have a lot of people who are open, capable, and prepared to serve society. The problem is how to give them the chance to do it. If you look at history, everything connected to faith, hope, and love has proven again and again to be more important for people than all the tricks and techniques of power and money. So, I would say 8.

Prague, February 15, 2013

 

Interview (1990)

 

One million Czechs and Slovaks are practicing Christians; 5 million are registered Church embers. A recent poll, however, indicated that roughly 60 percent of the population considers itself Christina. Still, 40 percent of the population is secular, a significant percentage. The major church is Catholic. Various Protestant denominations exist including Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans and the Evangelicals. There is a national Czech church and a small number of Eastern Orthodox. Jews are statistically insignificant (though historically important).

There are 16 Church of the Brethren congregations in Czechoslovakia and are, according to pastor Michael Otrisal, “very colorful.” The composition of the congregations are young in history and in age. Many of the young people involved are the children of atheistic families. Both political activists and Pentecostals mix, though recently a group of Pentecostals separated. “It’s a pity,” Otrisal admitted. “We need them and they need us.”

Otrisal invited me to a youth meeting of the Czechoslovak Church of the Brethren. At first sight, it reflected the spirit of the 1960s and Jesus Christ Superstar: singing, a guitar-playing pastor, prayers that touched on political subjects, some Bible study (how could a loving God intentionally harden the heart of the Pharaoh), a discussion of Justinian. Appearing midway through the meeting was a Southern Baptist theologian from Texas who had taken advantage of the lack of visas for Americans to drive over from Tubingen where he is on appointment for three months. He talked about the division of church and state in the U.S. (arguing that it wasn’t as strict as many seculars would suppose). He asked about the minority situation of the church of the Brethren in Czechoslovakia. One youth said that minority status was in many ways an advantage since the members did not have so much responsibility. “We don’t feel danger from Catholicism,” he continued. “But the agnostics are afraid that Christianity will become the new state ideology.” Otrisal argued that he viewed the Church merely as an instrument and that Christ was the root. Now, ecumenical contacts were possible. Immediately after November 17, for instance, various Church leaders came together for a common prayer meeting.

Later in the week, I visited Otrisal at home where we could talk at greater length about religion, politics and videotape (he works on religious broadcasting for TV). And, like a true budding filmmaker, Otrisal often illustrated his points with particular videos from his collection: a film about the Focolare movement, another about Taize, an animated feature entitled “The Hand” about an artist forced to shape images of a ruling hand out of clay instead of his beloved pots for plants (this latter film was made in 1966 and apparently has never been shown in Czechoslovakia). His latest piece was a bit of choreography inspired by the poem “Cage” which featured two young dancers who break through their earthbound cages with the help of Christ. Otrisal has taught himself how to shoot and edit film, had one movie camera and some home audio equipment. The organization World Vision has recently given the Czech religious broadcasting unit $10,000 and Otrisal will be going to West Germany soon to buy equipment for a proper studio.

Presently, religious broadcasting falls under educational broadcasting (the head of which, Dr. Pok, is a noted atheist and author of How Man Created God). The TV bureau is headed, according to Otrisal, by an “honest atheist.” The team working on religious broadcasting consists of five people, three full-time TV professionals (who are Christian) and two religious professionals Otrisal and a Catholic priest). So far, religious programming is limited to five minutes on Sunday morning, a monthly mass (alternating between Protestant and Catholic), and ten minutes once a month on Saturdays during a show devoted to cultural expression. Otrisal would eventually like to become more involved in religious programming for children and in producing discussions for TV bringing together, for instance, believers and non-believers.

“Our nation is a very secularized country,” he said. “You can’t say that Western Europe is particularly Christian, but it is more religious than we are. You can’ say that [Czechoslovakia is secular] because of Communism. It has much deeper roots.” Those roots include the Hussite rebellion n the 15th century, the forced re-Catholicization of Bohemia and Moravia during the 30 Years War in the 17th century, the decree of 1781 of Joseph II ensuring religious tolerance for non-Catholics (in order to attract German Lutherans to work in Czech lands), and the overwhelming secularism of the Frist Republic of 1918 under Masaryk.

The Communists, meanwhile, did not openly ban religion. Rather, they permitted all religious customs from the 1930s. Apparently this strategy adversely affected the Catholics who were rather rigid in the 1930s and thus were not permitted the Bible study and family meetings that Protestants enjoyed from 1948 on. Sometimes overt Church membership was frowned upon, especially for teachers in the schools (in this case, it was simply not permitted). A limited number of publications were permitted: five titles annually and monthly newspaper, for instance, for the Czech Brethren A youth newspaper that the congregation published in the 1960s was banned in 1969. Bibles were not impossible to get but not easy – one could buy them only in Churches. There was no official censorship – only self-censorship and occasionally penalties were assessed. Otrisal quoted the example of an article published in their monthly, a meditation upon the two thieves crucified to the left and right of Jesus. The government assessed a fine of 20,000 crowns, maintaining that the article was a “cryptogram,” a political allegory about the ideology of left-wing and right-wing.

I asked about religion in schools and religious schools. One of the people in the congregation’s youth group is working on a plan for “integrated education” which would bring together handicapped and non-handicapped students (a major change in education and indeed social policy for a country which previously maintained strict separation). Otrisal was happy that she and other congregation members were interested in this idea and not simply a “religious school which focused on ideology.” The teachers in the schools would be Christian and “everything will be colored by their Christian faith” but the key aspect will be the integration of handicapped people. In general, the issue of religion in schools was a “sensitive question,” Otrisal said. “People are afraid that a new ideology will replace the old Marxist ideology. That is why we in Church broadcasting have to be very careful with the image of Church life.”

I asked about abortion. Presently Czechoslovakia has liberal laws on abortion and, Otrisal noted, abortion has often been used as simply a means of contraception. But the discussion of the subject would not be as divisive, he thought, as in Poland. Again, the population’s fears of clericalism will prevent too great an intrusion of the Church (in this case, Catholic) into public life.

We then talked about the Christian Democrats. Otrisal thought that two issues diminished the electoral popularity of the coalition. The first was the CM”s support for the Catholic orders request for their pre-1948 properties. Although the orders asked only for 20 percent of these properties, the request nevertheless “caused such bitterness among people.” (At the time, the government postponed a decision on the issue but everyone expects that the properties will be returned eventually – a decision will probably be handed down within a month). The second issue was the Bartoncik affair. “I’m not a friend of the CDM. I don’t need a party to back my Christian opinions. But in my opinion Civic Forum’s handling of the issue was not very correct.” The credibility of Civic Forum, however, has survived the affair.

We then turned to the issue of ecumenism and I soon discovered that what I took for the influence of the 1960s in the youth meeting actually had deeper roots. Otrisal has been deeply influenced by two ecumenical movements both founded during the war period and both of which gained fame at the end of the 1960s, fame which continues today. The first is Brother Roger’s monastery at Taize in the heart of Burgundy. During the summer months, enormous numbers of people, mostly young, come to this French monastery where reconciliation and love are stressed in a non-denominational manner. The other movement is Focolare, which means “fireplace” in Italian. Founded in Italy by one Mme. Chiara, the movement has spread around the world. It started within the Catholic Church but in the 196s, it moved out of the Church. The movement stresses culture and art and does not decorate itself with many religious symbols. It holds huge multicultural celebrations, Genfests, which focus on art and deeply felt Christian values.

These movements generally stress a renewal in spiritualism, though in an ecumenical sense. They share with liberation theology and Christian fundamentalism an aversion to modernism and modernism’s chief elements materialism and bureaucracy. Though united in a distaste for modernism, the followers of these diverse spiritual movements would probably find little common ground (Harvey Cox’s Beyond the Secular City explores these connections – his analysis would be especially helpful in understanding the role of religion in Eastern European modernization processes). As for Otrisal, Focolare and Taize are his spiritual guideposts. When he attended a World Council of Churches meeting in Geneva, he was disappointed with the discussions of liberation theology and feminist theology and thought that they pushed the discussion too far from the Gospel: echoing Marx on Feuerbach, the WCC’ers argued that they had previously been simply preaching Gospel but now the task was to do something real in the world. But the Gospel, to Otrisal, is revolutionary. “If nothing change, then it wasn’t Gospel that we preached.”

But, I asked, doesn’t your congregation actively engage the world, moving from Gospel into the earthly realm? Yes, he replied, maintain that this particular position was to mediate between the two camps – those focusing on this world and those who focus entirely on the next (the charismatics and Pentecostals) “You cannot be really helpful without connection to God. But you can’t be a real Jesus follower without engagement in the world.”

And what of the revolution in November – was that Christian-led, Christian-inspired, Christian-like, or none of the above? Many of the leaders, Otrisal said, were either Christian or loosely followed the tenets: PIthart, the new rector of the university, Havel, Michael Kocab, and so on. And now that the revolution is over and the government is increasingly pragmatic, would the churches be that sector in society to constantly revive the issues of social justice? “I am not afraid that we will be the only part of society that will talk about social justice. Concern for social justice is deeply rooted in the Czech character.”

The newly acquired ability to travel freely has made Otrisal vey happy. His family is planning a trip to West Germany and to Switzerland where the godparents of his children live. He often thinks about what it was like before the revolution. “A big zoo. With large cages, good heating, rather good food. But still a zoo.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *