Preacher Petr Wagner on Saint Wenceslas, Czech atheism, and spreading his beliefs through punk

Petr Wagner, photo:

Petr Wagner is the front man of Czech Christian punk group Goro, a presenter on Český rozhlas station Radio Wave, and a Hussite preacher based in Čerčany, near Prague. Ahead of Monday’s national holiday in honour of Saint Wenceslas, I met Petr in a sunny Prague park to ask him what he thought the nation’s patron saint meant to Czechs a millennium after his death:

“It’s strange that Czech people have two significant people in their history, Saint Wenceslas and then Saint Adalbert (Vojtěch), who are really not the typical nation-leading figures. They were both outsiders, a little bit, and they were more peaceful than warrior-like types. And both of their lives ended rather badly. In both of them, there are some things that I really like in their psychology, because both of them are pretty close to what I can see in Christ that I like. They prefer peace to wars.

“With Saint Wenceslas, it is maybe getting more political, he is right on the edge of the old pagan times, with Christianity just emerging. His mother was a pagan – she was one of the pagan Slavs from the north. And he is right in the middle of two worlds, trying to combine both elements, trying to live his own faith in difficult times, being an important political figure.”

There is a great deal of legend and myth surrounding Saint Wenceslas. Do we actually know anything about what he did, and anything about what he actually achieved, or are details of his life just too shrouded in legend to tell for sure?

“I think what we can say is that he was trying to find a peaceful way of living with the German forces which were always on the border, and another thing that is pretty sure is that he was trying to propagate Christianity, and a Christian way of thinking, in this pagan environment. He was often complaining that there was lots of alcoholism here, and lots of trading in slaves and so on. So, in the legends, there are some parts that tell us that he was trying to deal with these things. But maybe slavery was so widespread at this time that it wasn’t quite possible for him to deal with this, but we do have some stories of Saint Wenceslas repenting for being drunk – and this is sometimes quite funny. He is still human for us, he is not that legendary.”

This country is very often referred to as the most atheist country in Europe, but I know you think that is a bit of a misrepresentation. I know you are an active preacher as well, so I wanted to ask you about the sort of people who come to hear you preach – would you say that there are more actively religious Czechs than you might first think?

“I think that our nation is not atheistic at all. It is closer to the pagan times that were in the old days, it just isn’t said. It is just lived, this kind of thing. We still have strong tendencies towards pagan kinds of thinking and beliefs; people turn towards astrology and massively towards different kinds of witchcraft, white witchcraft and such things. We even have television programmes on big television stations that deal with astrology and stuff. So, people tend to believe in something, it is just that Christianity has a really bad place in their views. Because under Communism it was compromising a lot, and then again afterwards.”

Can you tell me about your band Goro and the music you’re making?

“Yes, we founded Goro in 2003, with some guys from the church I used to go to. But we were always thinking of the band more as a band and not just as a church thing. We wanted to play normal clubs and not just in the parishes, in the congregations we were part of. So we went from the bottom, playing in the worst clubs ever, with the worst bands ever, to something we think has some sort of sense. Because now we can be appreciated for the music we do, not just for being Christians playing music for Christians, it is quite easy to do it that way.

“It is always easier when you stay in your own field and don’t do anything controversial, but we were always a little bit controversial and we are doing this stuff.”

… And are you finding acceptance in, as you called them, ‘secular circles’?

“Yes, in some secular circles, for sure. But at the same time, we have been confronted with lots of oppression in the so-called ‘scene’. But, I don’t like those scene things, because they are trying to segregate everything.”

I suppose, in this country, you are quite a high-profile Christian. Do you think that with your band and with your radio show you have found a really good way of reaching out to people and doing sort of further fieldwork, or is there a worry that you might be seduced by the fame they bring?

“[Laughs] I think I am quite unknown, and so I am pretty okay with this position! I would like to be better-known for the music with Goro, definitely, and then maybe attract some people to what I believe in, because I think I am quite open about that. But what I am trying to achieve, really, is to be a good father, a good husband and a good preacher in my congregation, and to keep the relationships that I have now in such a condition as they are now. Because I think I have friends across all of the denominations, and that’s great, and I know that’s very rare in the Czech Republic. So, that is the fame I would like to achieve, actually!”

I was wondering if you, as an active Christian, thought the Pope’s visit to the Czech Republic has a very large significance for this country or not?

“It has a big significance for Catholics, actually, that is for sure. But I’m not sure whether this specific Pope is a good symbol for this country, since he is German, his past is a little bit obscure, and he is really conservative – and that is what Czechs in general don’t like, and I think other denominations don’t like it either. So, for me, it has no actual meaning for me - okay, he’s coming, that’s okay for all my Catholic friends, but even many of them tell me that they don’t like this Pope as much as John Paul II, so, that’s that.”

Do you feel like you, as a Christian, as a Hussite Christian in this country, are part of a network of people who believe in the same things as you? And do you feel like there are people representing your beliefs, either at a political level, or indeed, at a senior church level here?

“Some of them, they do represent my points of view. But, you know, I’ve been through different denominations in my life, and so I think I try to take the best from different sides of Christianity, of Western Christianity. I have some friends also in the Orthodox Church, which is a big inspiration for me.

“But, it is interesting that the people that I really admire and look up to are not important in a political way. So, my own church authorities are not all important for me, because I just need to see them as a personal example of faith. That means that I have many, many heroes in the Catholic Church, and in the traditional Protestant Churches.

“When we are closer to the Gospel, we can be sure that the Church’s role is to be a servant, and that doesn’t mean that we will try to get as much money from the state as possible. So, we still have to have the heart of a servant, we must serve society, and serve those who don’t know Christ, and don’t know the Gospel. And the best way is by personal example, which means that we mustn’t be greedy, and that’s the thing. I think that all of the big churches here tend to be a little bit greedy.

“But at the same time, I think there are things to be done, and if the state, some 60 years ago, stole a huge amount of possessions, especially from the Catholic Church, then it should be resolved somehow. So I understand that the Catholics have tried to do something about this for the past 20 years, but I think they have focused a little bit much on this thing.”