Of Spiders and Sin

by Stephen Cobb on November 3, 2014

What follows is the definitive telling of my story about the Australian redback spider and its pedagogical employment in a theological context. This is a tale I have told many times in the company of friends but it has never been recorded for posterity, until now. I have included some notes below the story that might be of interest and will add more later as they occur to me.

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The phrase ‘liberal Baptist church’ might sound like an oxymoron, but I grew up in Coventry, England, and the theology of some English Baptists is quite liberal. Indeed, I was raised by a congregation of souls so liberal that I became a Sunday school teacher even though I had never been baptized and had not yet – nor have I since – accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Back then, as the sixties were turning into the seventies, Sunday school was more about the geography of poverty, feeding the hungry, and boycotting companies that did business with the white regime in South Africa.

The person who leads the services in an English Baptist church is referred to as the minister, although said person might be addressed as Reverend. From time to time, our regular Reverend went on holiday and Sunday services were conducted by guest ministers, which is how I first encountered the redback spider.

The guest minister that Sunday was from the continent that is the home of said spider, Australia. The deacons who arranged his visit were apparently unaware that some Australian Baptists were much closer in spirit to their evangelical cousins in the southern states of America, and their manner of sermonizing more that of preacher than minister. Such was the case with this unfortunate fellow, as his address to our Sunday school children would reveal, quite painfully as it turned out.

“Good morning children,” this preacher began, “I come from Australia, a place some people call ‘the land down under,’ and in that land we have some amazing creatures.”

His unfamiliar accent, and his dramatic emphasis on the last two words, definitely got the attention of his young audience, which ranged from about four to fourteen. The preacher continued, “One creature, the redback spider, is no bigger than the nail of my little finger, but his bite is deadly.”

To my English ears, this last word, which should have carried a lot of weight, sounded like ‘diddly’ which may explain how this children’s sermon went astray.

He continued, “Although he is so small, just one bite from this little fellah can kill you … dramatic pause … dead.”

Again, the ‘dead’ sounded like ‘did’ to me but the preacher’s delivery left no doubt that death was what this small but fearsome creature delivered. One bite could end your life. I could see some of the younger children sitting up a little straighter, eager for whatever came next.

“Now then children, what does this remind us of?”

The preacher paused for an answer. Scanned the young faces. Nothing.

“Just one bite and you’re dead. What does this remind us of?”

More silence.

“Sin!” he proclaimed, apparently failing to detect in the faces before him the signs of confusion that this word caused.

The preacher took a deep breath and forged ahead, asking a question he assumed would solve the riddle: “How many sins does it take to keep you out of heaven?”

More silence with just a hint of embarrassed shuffling from the adults in the congregation. The preacher was undeterred.

“Come on children,” he continued, as though this was the first thing you learned in Sunday school, “How many sins does it take to keep you out of heaven? Is it two? Five? Ten? A hundred?”

The sequence of numbers was enunciated with what sounded to me like a mild but mounting sense of despair. It was at this point that young Mark Jacobs from my class shot up his hand. No more than seven years old, Mark was a bit of a handful, but very quick on the uptake. I could tell he was sure he had this one figured out.

“Yes!” exclaimed the preacher, extending his palms towards Mark, who loudly delivered his answer, a logical deduction from the clues provided, but also – I like to think – a reflection of the spirit of the church in which he was being raised:

“Infinity!”

My heart went out to the preacher as he stood there and said about all he could say at that point: “No. It’s one. Just one sin can keep you out of heaven. Now let us sing hymn number 127: “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”

Notes:

1. The chorus of that hymn, written by Cecil Francis Alexander in 1848, goes like this:

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

I have no idea if Alexander had the redback spider in mind when she penned line two.

2. Very few renditions of this hymn today include the third verse of the original, which goes like this:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

In fact, several members of our congregation refused to sing the hymn at all, owing to the fact that its author held views so opposed to their own.

3. The English Baptists believe in adult baptism, a belief I greatly respect because it holds that nobody should take this step in life unless they make an informed decision to do so. I was never pressured to make this choice, again something I greatly respect. I remain unbaptized, but always welcome at that church.

4. Many years later I encountered redback spiders in Alice Springs, Australia. They were pointed out by the very gifted engineer who worked on my wife’s off-road racing vehicle, in a dark corner of his garage. He had recently been bitten by one, causing a very nasty injury, but fortunately he survived.

5. My wife was living in Alice Springs at the time because she was in charge of network security at a place called JDFPG for Joint Defense Facility Pine Gap, which is probably one of the largest computing facilities in the Southern Hemisphere.

6. JDFPG has a rugby team called the Redbacks with an awesome emblem. I know because one of their shirts is a prized possession of mine.

7. Theologically speaking one can argue that both Mark and the preacher were correct. Hard line protestant thinking on sins is that just one is enough to keep you out of heaven — and thus send you to hell when you die — unless you accept Jesus Christ as your savior and are baptized, in which case your sins are washed away. Technically, if you committed an infinite number of sins, you could still get into heaven because God’s forgiveness is infinite.

 

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ann H November 17, 2014 at 9:23 pm

Mark, that seven-year old speculating about infinity, he could be the student I’m writing to you about. Quick on the uptake.

Except the setting is not a church, but a low-income American high school in a conservative rural town, and the precocious boy is not a British national, but a self-taught Guatemalan hacker who survived two illegal border crossings to get to America and meet his parents for the first time at age 10. They thought he was a freak and tried to beat it out of him. At school, he literally saved his own life by hacking the bullies who tormented him. But that was then.

By age 12, he had learned English and was selling apps on the appstore under a pseudonym. By age 13, he was beta-testing Cloudon. By age 14, he was sitting in the back of my classroom creating the most elaborate minecraft game anyone had ever seen. He can describe every cubic meter from memory. He spent a week penetration testing the school firewall and offered to present his findings to administrators; we dissuaded him just in time.

Yes, of course, he could crash the district network or change his grades, but he doesn’t. He wants hacking to help, not hurt. He knows all about hurt.

At age 15, he’s a survivor, and with our help – two teachers who risk our jobs to support him (one of us is a former software engineer, the other is an English teacher) – he’s finally coming into his own. He may be an undiagosed autistic, but he’s smart as hell, and he’s got heart.

Our question is: How does this terrific kid find a way to legitimize his skills and plan his future, even though his parents pray every day to Jesus to make him normal and the school is terrified of him and just wants it all to go away?

I would ask Mark if I could. But, since I came across your name in an online article about a teen Cyber Boot Camp to hone kids’ white hat hacking skills, I’m asking you.

Yeah, it’s probably a long shot, I know. But we’re not looking for a miracle, just a new idea or two. And, maybe, a real project for our unique young friend. So, what do you say, Mr. Cobb? Can you help us help him?

Thank you for taking the time to read this. And watch out for spiders.
Regards,
Ann (yes, that’s my real name – I’m old school that way)

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Stephen Cobb January 29, 2015 at 10:17 pm

Sorry I did not notice this sooner Ann. My comment queue got plugged with spam. I would need quite a bit more information to act as a career advisor in a specific case, but here are some ideas:

1. Have him study for one or more certifications (CompTIA and Cisco are good). If he has a goal (pass the tests and get certified) that may help focus his energies. With certification he can look for work, maybe part time, maybe as an intern. This may sound shocking but I would not try to force him into college. If he is the kind of raw talent you imply, it may be better to put it to work, in a legitimate occupation.

I know a 23 year-old penetration tester with a large utility company who got his Cisco certified network engineer at 16 and now travels the world fixing problems and earning 6 figures. College? Maybe later. The top engineer in the consulting company I had back in the 1990s left university to build the company and never went back. He is now an admired CEO.

In other words, try to point him in a direction that will challenge his abilities while enabling them to be channeled into positive outcomes.

I hope that helps…Stephen

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