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Televising Religion in the Czech Republic

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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 the 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

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?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.