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..
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?”
“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:
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."
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.