Canadian pastor defends Upside-Down Church; says it’s not blasphemous

AMERICAN artist Dennis Hopper’s controversial Upside-Down Church, entitled “Device to Root Out Evil” – a piece currently on a lease to Calgary’s Glenbow Museum – has been defended by pastor John Pentland, of Hillhurst United Church.

Hopper's Upside-Down Church, pictured when it was on display in Vancouver

Pentland reflected on the fact that Jesus and his followers did turn things upside down. Jesus, he said, embraced the outcasts of society. He challenged the religious hierarchy of the time. He challenged the dominating system of the day.

The Upside Down Church isn’t blasphemy. It is an awakening to consider how the Spirit can turn our ideas upside down, not in harsh judgment so much as playful wisdom. It’s also to consider a grounded church, not one off in the clouds focused just on afterlife.

Pentland was speaking at the launch of a programme called “Awakenings” – an exploration of ways that:

People connect to the sacred and how different paths awaken our spirituality.

When the mischievous piece first appeared in Vancouver, it divided residents. Commenting on it beneath this report, one – Lisa – complained:

If this was an upside down mosque there would be death threats against the artist. If this was an upside down synagogue there would be cries of anti-semitism. Why it is ok to publicly insult one religion’s holy place over another’s I will never understand.

It saddens me that the mocking and insulting of Christianity and Catholisicm has become so commonplace for it to be funded by the city.

The message of this statue cannot be overlooked: it is saying that the church is backwards and upside down. If you were a practicing Catholic or Christian and you had to look at this statue every day, knowing that it was funded by your own tax dollars in the name of ‘public art’, wouldn’t you be outraged?

22 responses to “Canadian pastor defends Upside-Down Church; says it’s not blasphemous”

  1. Broadsword says:

    Art is a subjective thing that evokes a unique response in each beholder. The fact that I don’t like the above piece doesn’t mean it’s crap.

    It’s nice, however to see xians arguing over it. All wee need to see now is the World represented as a pig with a mosque on its back.

  2. Daz says:

    Or, (Re Lisa), you could claim that it shows (most) Christians as being more tolerant of criticism and free expression than many other religions. But once again those who want to seem victimised will go out of their way to perceive insult.

    I’d say John Pentland was about right, as far as most people view the teachings of Jesus, though I have no idea (and less interest) if that’s what the artist meant to imply.

  3. Broadsword says:

    Dear friends

    I assume this comment will appear before the one I posted just after 11am. In most cases a frivolous, innocuous comment is unimportant as are most things I express. I’m not vain enough to believe anything I say has gravitas.

    Some comments must appear when posted so as to have context and for the writer to engage in real-time discussion with others. The Freethinker has a filter that is too robust and sometimes filters out regular contributors, stifling genuine debate.

    I write this last paragraph to give the filter time to approve my latest comment, otherwise where’s the fun? It’s more than an hour since I posted a relevant comment here and I’m considering not getting involved again. I shall also not renew my subscription.


  4. tony e says:


    I think the filter is robust due to the fact that this site must be constantly bombarded by delusional trolls wishing to push their various brands of nonsense.

  5. Wurble says:

    This may not be of particular relevance to this story but I thought you might like it. Having said that it’s probably relevant to every story ever featured in the Freethinker.

    The Rational Anthem.

  6. Daz says:

    The odd few times I’ve had comments take ages were when I used the ‘a href’ tag to make pretty links. That said I noticed the day before yesterday that several comments lagged. This one…

    …by Barriejohn springs to mind, and I can’t see anything in it that would trigger a filter. I’d say there’s something awry somewhere.

  7. Garlic says:

    ‘If you were a practicing Catholic or Christian and you had to look at this statue every day, knowing that it was funded by your own tax dollars in the name of ‘public art’, wouldn’t you be outraged?’

    Catholics are Christians. This pillock can’t even get it right about her own brand of Abrahamic faith.

    I can think of a number of explanations of the meaning of this artwork and can agree with this pastor that it isn’t in any way a glaringly obvious mockery of religion.

    1) The church is being used like a shovel to root out evil from the earth.
    2)The artwork calls for the church’s hierarchy to be upturned so it’s ‘all about’ the congregation.
    3)The artwork prompts people to think about what is really important, their beliefs or just a building. See the exposed empty framework there. Why leave half the tiles off the roof? Food for thought!
    4) This pastor’s own interpretation that it calls for a ‘grounded’ church which is based on practice on this earth, not thinking about a heaven so successfully analogised with North Korea by Hitchens in which one must constantly sing the praises of the Great Leader. Spires are meant to point to heaven. So is this bloke saying we should create heaven on earth?
    5) A call for transparency in the church – we can see through the building. Surely Catholics would be rather happy about this!

    I reckon if the guy wanted to say something really terrible about religion, he could have created a burnt-out church or something more overtly offensive… something whose most obvious meaning didn’t include any of the positive things that initially sprang to my mind above. I think this artist could be one of the modern day’s extremely liberal Christians like John Selby Spong. As such, he even made me, an agnostic who always found Christianity patently untrue, ask questions. I don’t think any Christian who isn’t a foam-mouthed lunatic searching for reasons to be offended would be upset by this item.

    Also, two questions, what would an upside-down synagogue look like and how would we know it’s not the right way up, since all such places I have seen are rectangular anyhow, and r.e. the upside down mosque, why does this woman want the fake respect born of fear awarded to the Desert Death Cult?

    Finally I would like to suggest that the laws of physics involved in this creation are the same that enabled me at 14 to half drink a can of Coke, balance it on the ground on its rim, and run off to hide around a corner in my school with my friends, giggling at by-passers’ puzzled faces. Ah, the innocent pleasures of youth, and all that.

  8. Mike says:

    It’s not even “pretty” and I am willing to bet that maker, (that is all he is) of it build it the normal right side up and then turned upside down. Now if it was created as depicted, from the steeple upwards, then maybe it would be worth interest.

  9. Gord says:

    I haven’t heard much controversy here in Calgary about it. It really is cool to check out. My 8 year old really liked it as did I, got some good discussion from seeing it.

  10. barriejohn says:

    Well – at least one person read that early comment of mine yesterday that disappeared for hours! Like others I find it difficult to find the motivation to comment on this site now, as there seems little point if no one knows that you have posted anything, and I have no idea who has commented on older threads now as I don’t have the time to trawl through them all every day.

  11. Daz says:


    Possibility 6) The artist just thought it might look cool and catch the eye, and wasn’t making any kind of religious statement. Personally, I think making it look like a stone-built church would have been even more arresting, but each to their own.


    Some sort of problem with the server the board’s hosted on, maybe? It does seem to be getting worse lately.

  12. Marcus says:

    Upside down or not, at least it happened. Unlike this monu-mental statue of jeebus which flatly refuses to do the decent thing. Wouldn’t you think that god would intervene somehow? I mean, how difficult could it be for the almighty to stop such embarrassing things happening to his flock?

  13. Badger3k says:

    Lisa had it completely backwards. Why do we think it is ok to issue death threats or cry anti-Semitism? Neither would be correct in the situation she describes, and she should recognize that at least the Church is more advanced than their counterparts (at least the ones who try to silence the artwork).

  14. barriejohn says:

    The woman only demonstrates her ignorance anyway. As Broadsword says in the very first comment, it is a piece of art, and everyone who views it sees what he will in it!

  15. Daz says:

    I’ve decided I quite like it after seeing this picture, which doesn’t contrast it with the skyscrapers.

    I have no interest in the symbolism, if any, I just think it looks kinda good.

  16. Stuart H. says:

    I’ve just noticed what might be a sly joke in the piece – well, made me laugh anyway.
    I believe the altar and lectern in traditional churches are at the opposite end to the steeple, and if you notice, there’s a hole in the church roof at that end. So, if there was a service going on at the time the church was turned upside down the pastor would fall out of the roof. Now bear in mind the title of the piece is ‘Device to Root Out Evil’……

    …just a thought!

  17. barriejohn says:

    Marcus: How on earth could a giant statue of “Jesus” (very Caucasian once again, natch) be “very useful”? The mind boggles at the stupidity of these people. But at least it hasn’t burnt to the ground yet!

  18. Marcus says:

    barriejohn: Ah, yes. One of my favourite Freethinker articles over recent months. Seemingly, however, it isn’t an isolated incident. Apparently god just doesn’t give a flying one about his own people as he seems to have a bad habit of sending highly destructive weather their way on a regular basis. It’s enough to make a sane, rational person wonder if he actually exists at all!

  19. barriejohn says:

    Marcus: Puny man, with all his limitations, can never comprehend the mighty workings of the mind of God. By prayer and meditation, and attention to His Holy Word, and the promptings of His Gracious Spirit, we can only attempt in a very feeble way to…(continues in same vein until The Millennium).

  20. barriejohn says:

    Here’s a good one, but we are getting sidetracked, I fear!