Vol. 18, No. 4
A Christian Voice in East European Mainstream Media
An Interview with Juraj Kusnierek
Editor’s note: Juraj Kusnierek is a journalist; music, drama, and film critic; co-founder of Artforum Bookshop; co-host of a weekly television talk show; and deputy editor-in-chief of the influential Slovak weekly, Týždeň [Week].
Editor: Can you share some about your background?
I was born in Banska Bystrica, a city in central Slovakia, to a very religious family. My mother was an accountant. My father was a technician. Both were very active in a local evangelical church.
Editor: Where did you receive your schooling?
Because of the “political profile” of our family I could not study liberal arts, which was my natural interest. So I studied computer science at the Slovak University of Technology in Bratislava. I graduated successfully in spite of the fact that to this day I do not understand how computers work!
Editor: How did you become a Christian?
I was raised in a very pious, even pietistic environment. This gave me a strong faith in the existence of God and an equally strong suspicion of the church. When I came to Bratislava for my university studies, I tried to avoid church, but somehow I could not avoid God—I was afraid of Him. When I was about 20 years old I met a group of artists, most of them from a non-church environment, who were Christians. They were strongly influenced by The Navigators. At that time I was basically a bohemian hippie. When I first saw the bridge illustration, it was the first time in my life that I saw God as loving, God offering salvation to our broken lives, and not us trying to behave so well that we somehow reach God. (Editor’s note: See http://www.navigatorsorg/us/resources/illustrations/items/bridge.) It dawned on me a few days later—I was in a bus (I can show you the exact place in Bratislava)—that to my surprise I discovered that I was not afraid of death and God’s judgment. Jesus brought the sufficient sacrifice for my past and future sins. I was actually thinking that it would be good to die at that very moment to be with God, and be in his perfect love for ever. Although I am still alive, this basic attitude has never left me. I live my very imperfect and broken life in hope.
Editor: Can you comment on your thoughts during the overthrow of the Czechoslovak Marxist regime?
That was a miracle. The regime which was supposed to be here “forever,” all of a sudden collapsed. It was unbelievable and it was like a dream. I still consider it as a miracle and I feel a tremendous privilege to have seen it in my own lifetime. I love freedom!
Editor: Please describe your work with Marsh Moyle and his Christian consulting and publishing agency, Central European Foundation (SEN).
It started as a misunderstanding: Marsh hired me as a computer programmer, but he soon found out that I could not do much programming. Marsh and I nevertheless became good friends, and we saw that what the church in Central and Eastern Europe actually needs is a certain self-understanding and a comprehension of the new challenges of the post-Communist world. So we set up a study center, we wrote several research papers, we organized conferences and workshops, we spoke with pastors and priests, and we helped to publish good books. I was responsible for research and publishing at SEN.
Editor: Can you reflect on your decision to shift from full-time church and mission work to work in public media (journalism and television)?
I was with SEN for eight years and toward the end of this period I felt more and more uneasy spending most of my time in a “churchy” environment. I was always very much connected with the “secular” culture scene in Slovakia. In 1990 I co-founded the first independent bookstore in Slovakia, and I was involved in setting up an independent music radio station. So I thought that I needed to live and work in my natural environment. That was why I left SEN and started working in the bookstore I had started several years before. As a bookseller I started to write about books and music; I started to work in TV; and then I was invited to become deputy editor-in-chief of a new weekly magazine. When I was offered the magazine position, I hesitated for about two minutes and then I agreed. I still think that this is my proper life. This is my journey. If I am a fish, this is for me water. I love alternative rock and jazz music. I love books. I like meeting people, talking, listening, reading, and writing. Although many people know that I am a Christian—I became a sort of “public personality”—I do not speak or write about religion very often.
Editor: What two or three books have been most influential in your spiritual growth?
First and foremost C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, and also The Confessions of St Augustine and Knowing God by J.I. Packer.
Editor: Which writers would be especially helpful for Western readers seeking to understand Central and East European culture and psyche?
I would suggest several books by Milan Kundera (The Joke, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Immortality). They might help to understand the existential cynicism which is so deeply rooted in us. Also, poems and essays by Polish Nobel Prize laureate Czesław Miłosz. He is deeply religious, but sometimes in an unorthodox way. Any book by the great Hungarian writer Peter Esterhazy, especially Celestial Harmonies (2001). I think he is one of the best living writers in the world. He is a master in connecting deep faith in God with the vulgarity and hopelessness of our daily lives. And Kaddish for the Unborn Child by the brilliant and thoughtful Hungarian-Jewish writer Imre Kertesz.
Editor: How do you account for the relatively strong economy and greater religious tolerance in Slovakia compared to some other post-Soviet states?
Slovakia is a lucky winner of the twentieth century. In the year 1900 an independent Slovak nation did not exist. In 1918 Slovakia was happily “pulled into” the Czechoslovak Republic and experienced 20 years of freedom, democracy, and prosperity. During World War II Slovakia was Hitler’s ally, but at just about the right time (August 1944) the antifascist Slovak National Uprising put us among the winners. Then we had 40 years of Communism, which in Slovakia was never so cruel as in the Czech part of Czechoslovakia. Slovak dissidents had to work in libraries while Czech dissidents had to work in factories or were forced to emigrate, not to mention [fear of banishment to] the Soviet Union. And then in 1989 we again joined our Czech brothers in the Velvet Revolution and have experienced freedom and relative prosperity ever since. Slovaks have never been great visionaries, but somehow—often in the last possible moment—we join the right side and “win.” Now we are part of the European Union; we use the Euro as our national currency; and since 1992 we are a sovereign country and are doing quite well. We are lucky winners.
Editor: How serious a threat to spiritual vitality is the current quest for material comfort and security in Central and Eastern Europe?
I recently wrote and published an article stating that the idea that “Slovakia is a Christian country” is a myth. Although about 80 percent of Slovak citizens consider themselves Christians, it means next to nothing. They do not love righteousness and freedom; and they do not show love and mercy to the poor and oppressed. What they want is enough money to be able to live in relative peace and prosperity. But they—or I should rather say we—would like to believe in a good and merciful God. The God we come to know in church is a powerful and judging king, but somehow out of touch with our reality.
I find desire for God in rock clubs. I know techno DJs who try to believe in God. Rytmus, the most famous Slovak hip-hopper, or rather a gangsta rapper, has the face of Jesus with a crown of thorns tattooed on his arm. When I asked him why, he said because Jesus is his hero. Everybody is afraid of a vacuum. Many in Slovakia are afraid of a spiritual vacuum.
Editor: What are Slovak churches doing well today? And what do Slovak churches need to do differently to be salt and light in Slovak society?
Some churches, especially the Roman Catholic and Adventist Churches are doing excellent charity work. They genuinely care for homeless people, for the elderly and the poor. And during the last 20 years they learned how to do charitable work very well. Some churches are also trying not to preach, but to listen and help. According to my very humble opinion, churches need to be more open. They should try to lower the cultural barriers and offer spiritual advice, help, and support for those who come to them.
The spiritual hunger is great. Let me give one example. The biggest open-air rock music festival in Slovakia is called Pohoda and I belong to the team of organizers. It is not a Christian festival, and it was not my idea to finish this year’s festival in July 2010 with ecumenical worship on Sunday morning. (The festival starts on Thursday night and ends very late on Saturday.) My friend Michal Peter Balzary, who is the founder of the festival and a well-known rock musician, came to me with the idea. And so it was. Leaders in worship included a Hasidic rabbi singing a beautiful blessing, an 82-year-old Catholic priest who had spent 10 years in uranium mines in the 1950s as a political prisoner, an evangelical pastor, and a female Lutheran priest. About 2,000 people attended this service in incredible, almost unsustainable sunshine. All the media reported the next day that it was the grand finale of the festival.
Editor: Can you give examples of your television programs that have caused your audience to wrestle with important ethical and spiritual issues?
We had a program with mentally handicapped people, talking with them for two hours about how they feel and how they see the world. We had a discussion about death and dying, abortion, and marriage. We had a discussion about “alternative lifestyles” with punks, ravers, and rastas. Mostly, however, we speak about politics, which is the reason our program is loved and hated at the same time.
Editor: Could you give our readers a sampling of the types of articles you write for the press to illustrate your engagement with culture?
Let me just mention articles I wrote in the last few weeks: “The World on An Island” – about the film festival on the Italian island of Ischia with Peter Fonda, Heather Graham, Ornella Muti, etc; “They Did Not Come from Mars” – about Slovak Gypsy music; “The End of Love Parade” – about the tragic end of the Love Parade in Duisburg, Germany, where 21 people died; and “The Man in Black” – an extensive profile of Johnny Cash.
I also regularly review albums of alternative rock bands: Sigur Rós, The National, Caribou, Bob Dylan, Depeche Mode, etc. I also conduct interviews with Slovak and international musicians and authors (Nick Cave, Patti Smith, Lou Rhodes, José González, Emiliana Torrini, the band Animal Collective, The Prodigy, The Stranglers, etc.)
I try to write a review about every new book of Slovak fiction that deserves attention. Now I am preparing a series of articles about important religious words, such as hell, sin, heaven, salvation, church, holiness, and the Trinity. I will go to pastors, priests, and theologians and ask them very simple questions about the meaning of these words.F
Editor’s note: For earlier contributions of Juraj Kusnierek to the East-West Church and Ministry Report see “Post-Modern Culture in Post-Soviet Countries” 2 (Winter 1994), 1-2; and “Taboos in the Central European Church” 8 (Winter 2000), 12-13.