News Release:

Jul. 15,  2013

Dr. John H. Hayes: Scholar, Teacher, Farmer

The following is the full text of Carl Holladay's tribute to Dr. John Haralson Hayes, delivered at his July 14, 2013 funeral in Five Points, Ala. 

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Carl Holladay

Today we gather to celebrate the remarkable life of John Hayes, an internationally renowned Old Testament scholar, an unforgettably engaging—and entertaining—teacher, devoted churchman, a loyal and steadfast friend, and loving brother, uncle, cousin and father.

It is entirely appropriate that we do so at this place, Five Points Baptist Church in Five Points, Ala., the town in which John graduated from high school, and adjacent to the church cemetery where his parents are buried. This is also the church that John attended and where he regularly taught Sunday school class and occasionally preached. It is also appropriate that we gather at this time—10 o’clock on Sunday morning, when John would ordinarily be teaching the Bible class, as he did last Sunday.

We all feel a tremendous sense of loss. Although we knew him in different ways and were able to share in different parts of his life, we all experienced him as someone larger-than-life who not only made an indelible impression on us but also changed us. No matter how we knew him nor which part of his rich, multifaceted life we were able to share in, we all realized that to know John Hayes was a life-changing experience.

Sometimes a person enters our life who transforms our black-and-white existence into full, living color. John was such a person.

He was a colorful character who used colorful language and told colorful stories—sometimes slightly off color—and by adding color wherever he went, made our lives more colorful.

Talking with John you sometimes thought that he had stepped out of a Faulkner novel. Sitting there in his Dickies khaki pants, his open-collar shirt covered with food and tobacco stains, wearing a camouflage cap, he would talk about Spinoza, Maimonides, or some aspect of medieval exegesis. The longer I knew him the more I realized that he was an enigmatic, deeply complicated man. He used to say that none of us is a single self but a combination of different selves, one of which happens to be on display at any given time. It was self-description, of course. And even his manner of death seem scripted—lying unconscious in a pasture on his farm with his cattle grazing nearby.

Although John led a colorful life, the colors of his life were not always bright reds, yellows, blues and greens. He had his fair share—no, more than his fair share—of dark grays and deep purples. But because he had experienced the full spectrum of life’s colors, he could talk about life—and write about it—with unusual depth and intensity. And this he did, both in his scholarly works written for specialists and non-specialists, and in his more popular ‘Possum book and his novel Abanda, the semi-autobiographical account of his sharecropper upbringing in 1940s Alabama.

John grew up in a world in which color carried additional layers of meaning, and in which color defined human worth. But from that world, as vividly reported in his novel Abanda, John somehow emerged color-blind. And true to his Southern, liberal values, and also sensitized by the moral vision of the eighth-century prophets, John was enraged by racial discrimination and the social injustices that accompanied it. All of this is amply attested in the numerous columns he wrote over the years in the local newspapers. Today, he was remembered in a sermon by Peter Trudinger, one of John’s Australian students, who recalled his efforts to clothe African American children in rural Alabama and to rescue stray animals.

I knew John for more than 30 years as a colleague at Candler School of Theology. We taught courses together and wrote several books together, and after he retired, when he returned to Candler he regarded my office as his own office. For the hour or so John was on campus, I would be sitting behind my own desk, surrounded by my library, realizing that I was a guest in John’s office. This meant that I have seen him regularly ever since he retired.

It is impossible, of course, and unnecessary really, to rehearse his many accomplishments today. They are a matter of public record and well known to most everyone here. But it is worth stating for the record that he was an accomplished Old Testament scholar who, through his lifetime of scholarly research and writing, became a highly respected, internationally recognized scholar known for his seminal, provocative ideas and groundbreaking work. As in other aspects of his life, his ideas were often controversial, calling into question the scholarly consensus that had developed over several decades, if not centuries. For six years, 1977–1982, he served as editor of the prestigious Journal of Biblical Literature. Through his prodigious record of research and teaching, he helped to secure Emory’s reputation as one of the major centers for Hebrew Bible and Old Testament study both nationally and internationally, an enviable position it still maintains today. In this capacity he helped attract a steady stream of highly gifted doctoral students, and over his career directed 25 PhD dissertations. Through these students, who hold teaching positions in colleges, universities, and seminaries throughout North America and beyond, his scholarly influence—and his personal influence—continues.

John’s reputation as a seminary teacher is another key ingredient of his remarkable life. During his 35 years of teaching at Candler, John taught hundreds of ministerial students. While his courses were considered among the most rigorous at Candler, students loved his teaching and remembered him fondly as an engaging, witty teacher who liked to pepper his lectures with homespun wisdom and memorable illustrations. They quickly learned that his lectures were entertaining but not mere entertainment. Having served as a minister in churches in numerous settings, John brought pastoral sensibilities to his seminary courses. He taught ministerial students to be close readers of the Bible, to be cautious in what they claimed about the Bible, and to reexamine the assumptions they brought to their reading of the Bible. Students also remember how John fed them.  He regularly brought boxes of Moon Pies to class and dispensed them freely, knowing that for some students this was their introduction to a fine Southern tradition.

It was mainly in this academic context that I knew John, although I occasionally visited him on the farm. From these many experiences with him, several images linger.

First, the image of John at his desk in Bishop’s Hall—John the scholar. John’s office had two metal desks that sat back to back. They were piled high with papers, stacks of books, and assorted files. The walls were lined with filing cabinets and bookcases, over which additional bookshelves extending to the ceiling had been installed. An aluminum extension ladder, which an Emory worker had left behind, gave access to the highest shelves. John typically sat at his desk with a writing pad in front of him and No. 2 pencils nearby. Never having learned to type, much less use a computer, John often bragged that his No. 2 pencil was his word processor! His office door was always open, with a constant flow of students, colleagues and passersby coming and going. Sometimes one or two of his research assistants would be sitting at the desk across from John working on one of his research projects. And yet, amid all this chaos, this din of noise and ceaseless flow of traffic, John would talk with students, consult with colleagues, answer the phone—and write. It seemed that even when you were talking with him, he was writing, or half-writing. That square foot of his desk was a sacred scribal space that was always active. If ever there was “a scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven” who “brought out of his treasure what was old and new,” it was John Hayes.

This habit of perpetual activity helps explain his prodigious literary output—more than 40 books and scores of scholarly articles.

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Dr. John H. Hayes

Forty—we should let that register. Some of his books were popular books for non-specialists, others were co-written, but most were singly written. And some of his books were truly groundbreaking. Scores of scholarly books are published every year but only a thimbleful end up moving the needle of scholarly opinion. But the Hayes-Miller history of Israelite and Judean history redefined that important aspect of Old Testament studies. When it first appeared, it was controversial because it challenged the scholarly consensus that had been in place for decades. But over the last 30 or so years scholarly opinion has moved toward the Hayes-Miller view. That’s a stratospheric achievement.

At that desk, John helped more than two dozen doctoral students define their research topics, think through their research, and write their dissertations. John could listen to a student who brought a confusing amalgam of ideas to his office and somehow help them identity the one or two truly important ideas, and then help them move their research and writing along until it became a completed dissertation. One of John’s special gifts was his ability to resurrect a dissertation that others had given up on.

Two things stand out about this scholarly workshop. First, the stacks of books, papers and files reflected his multiple interests and his incredible ability to multitask. John rarely, if ever, had only one project going. Somehow he attended to many things at once, or, more correctly, to many people at once, giving them just the amount of attention they needed to keep going. That mass of organized chaos also reflected the breadth of John’s scholarly interests. Far from being a narrow specialist he was a well-read generalist whose knowledge was vast and deep.

Second, his door was always open. That open office door symbolized John’s openness and selfless generosity. As busy as he was, he was always available. The open door is also a reminder of his many scholarly collaborations. Several of John’s books were co-authored, which usually meant that he had invited a junior colleague, like myself, or a recent graduate student, to write a book with him, which meant that we were allowed to benefit from having our name on the same title page with this world-renowned scholar. The open door was really a symbol of John’s open heart.

Another image is John on his feet, lecturing—John the teacher. I can still see John holding forth in Room 301 of Bishops Hall. My office was at the other end of the hall, and when I would hear rollicking laughter coming from that end of the hall, I knew that John (or Bill Mallard) was lecturing. His textbook was the Old Testament, and he gave his lectures with his distinct Southern drawl. In Candler’s curriculum, seminary students take two semesters of Old Testament interpretation in their first year. For many of them, this is their first experience with critical study of the Bible, and it sometimes has an unnerving effect. John handled this pedagogical challenge with unusual effectiveness. His wit enabled him to disarm students who suspected that he was out to undermine their faith. He was also able to show students that reading the Bible could be enjoyable, especially if you knew what some of the metaphors really meant. But through it all he would manage to lead his students through the text and through the maze of scholarly theories about the text, and they would come out on the other side wearing T-shirts that read, “I survived Hayes’s OT course.”

One reason he was such an engaging teacher was his uncanny ability, not just to recall his own life experiences, but also to reflect on them with his probing intellect and to use his fertile imagination and gifts of spoken and written speech to describe these experiences in unforgettable language.

When John expounded the biblical text, whether it was the book of Leviticus, the Psalter, or one of the Old Testament prophets, he somehow managed to connect the text with life experience. For one thing, he knew that biblical texts had typically arisen out of intense life experiences, whether moments of high celebration or moments of deep despair, and he had the rare ability to capture that experiential dimension of the text so that students and readers would not simply hear the text explained but also feel the emotions, even re-live the experiences of those ancient priests, prophets, sages, and scribes; and not just be affected or impressed by what they heard or read, but also changed by it. Hearing John lecture, we all felt enlightened. We knew more than we did before. But our understanding of life, in its many complexities, was deepened. We were, if not better people, at least, more fully human, because our understanding of life was richer and deeper.

John also taught his students to be more fully engaged readers of the Bible, not just to read the lines but also to read between the lines; to ask what’s being said in the text, but also what’s being said behind the text, or even what’s not being said in the text. Knowing our tendency to make the Bible say what we want it to say, John would insist on letting the Bible speak for itself in all of its rawness and ambiguity, but also in its clarity; to speak to us in its richness. Because of his own experience as a preacher and pastor, John knew the many ways the Bible can be misread and misused, even abused, as well as the many evils that have occurred in the name of the Bible. So, he taught ministerial students to be critical readers, to think about how they preached and taught from the Bible, and when speaking about the Bible, to be careful about what they said; to consider the impact their sermons would have on people’s lives; and to ponder the consequences, even the unintended consequences, of their sermons. Knowing that the meaning of the text may not lie on the surface, or even just beneath the surface, but somewhere deeper, in places hard to find, John invited us to travel with him to those deeper caves of understanding, and he entertained us every step of the way.

A third image is John in overalls wearing a John Deere cap, walking in the pasture—John the farmer.

John grew up on a farm not far from here, but rather than spending his life trying to escape the farm, he returned to the farm even before he retired, and after he retired took up farming full-time. In a sense, though, John never really left the farm. Farm life informed his teaching and writing. His knowledge of animals and farm life gave him eyes to see the meaning of many passages in Leviticus that city dwellers could never see. As his students can attest, John’s illustrations were often not only down to earth but also downright earthy. When I was academic dean, I occasionally had to deal with student complaints about the earthiness of John’s language.

John’s love for the farm also helps explain his unusual relationship to dirt. Dirt was something he clutched in his hands, wore on his shirt, and deposited in his car. For me, dirt was something to be washed off; for John, dirt was a badge of honor.

It was on the farm that John’s love of animals was most visible. He not only owned cattle, but he also named them. He would pat them, talk to them, and call them by name. And if you were a really close friend, he would name one of his cows after you. I never received that high honor.

Stories of John with his animals are legendary, but one of my favorites is the time he was pulled over by a policeman on a back country road near his house. Someone driving behind him had seen his car weaving back and forth across the highway, and certain that he was drunk, called the cops to report him. When the cop stopped John to see if he had had too much to drink, John explained that his car was weaving around because he had his left hand on the steering wheel and was using his right hand to scratch the belly of his dog who was sitting in the passenger’s seat.

Lester Shepherd reminded me of the times when his grandchildren would visit the farm, and John would insist that they go fishing with him. He trained them to kiss the fish and then return them to their homes. He would demonstrate this, but instead of kissing the fish, John would kiss the back of his hand instead of the fish. But the kids would take him literally because it appeared to them that he was kissing the slimy fish. From then on, they would always kiss the fish, and John would remind them, “Kiss and release,” chuckling every single time. In John’s world, every fish deserved to be kissed and set free.

The image of John the farmer also extended to Atlanta. When John drove to Atlanta, he brought the farm with him—literally, a good bit of his farm covered the floorboard and seats of his car. He would park—illegally—in the front of the Theology School, unload tomatoes by the box, peanuts by the toesack, and shelled pecans neatly bagged, and roam the hallways dispensing these goodies. On those occasions we were delighted to see Farmer John coming to town.

You’ve probably noticed the common theme of these three images—John at his desk writing and talking with students and colleagues; John standing in the classroom lecturing on the Old Testament; and John the farmer strolling the pastures with his dogs. The John we see in all three settings is a generous, open-hearted man, kind and gentle—generous with his time, his knowledge, his humor, and his genuine humanity. What he had, he shared, whether he was his ideas, his friendship, his farm, or freshly shelled pecans. And thanks to his incurable writer’s itch, his knowledge, thoughts, and insights will be shared with interested readers for a long time to come.

I conclude by complying with one of John’s wishes. The only request he made about his funeral service was that the concluding paragraphs of his ‘Possum book be read.  We let John, then, have the last word:

“Let’s try and make the most of our existence. Let’s give it our best, appreciate its every moment, and enjoy it to the fullest. Let’s live with honesty and integrity so we won’t stagger through the twilight of our days with a heart clogged with remorse. We should live life by what is right, not by what we can keep out of sight.

“When we leave life behind, may we be able to do so with no regret and no apology. May we leave our space uncluttered for the next occupant, with little or no trace of our personal trash.

“And when on our day the sun has set, let us pray that the darkness be not long delayed, that short will be that evening journey into night. And may that night kiss us softly on the cheek, and embrace us tenderly in its keep.”

Amen.