Of all the professors on campus it was said he would be the first to be fired. He was not a firebrand but a mystic philosopher teaching the Old Testament in a Southern Baptist college. He was always stirring souls with what some would say were his heretical musings. He had written a brilliant doctoral dissertation on the winged serpents of the Canaanites and the formerly winged serpent of Genesis. But he was not as interested in academic studies as he was in the discovery of the minds and souls of the ancients.
He was a good heretic. He warned you at the beginning of each of his Old Testament classes of the pitfalls of knowledge. Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden because they ate from the Tree of Knowledge. God believed this would have destroyed them. Knowledge he emphasized was a dangerous thing. To know something can change the very essence of who you are or what you may do. Ignorance is bliss was not a quaint saying. If you do not want to be changed at your very core do not seek knowledge. He smiled ‘It could keep you in constant trouble with the administration,’ he added.
After his fair warning and then he continued to teach in his laid-back manner. Sitting usually. Sometimes with his feet on the desk. Always a conversational voice and manner. And then he would be distracted and stare into a corner of the room and, almost trancelike, begin to talk with great passion. Yahweh the God of the Jews could not survive in the city; he was a desert God. The Israelites thrived in the Wilderness. They communed with their God. They even broke bread with God daily when God supplied them with manna from heaven. But this was never enough; they wanted to build a great nation. So they built Jerusalem and made for themselves kings. But they longed for that closeness to God they once had. So they boxed God up in a tabernacle and put Him under house arrest in the Temple. They literally thought God could only leave the Temple when He was under close supervision and kept in a box, he reflected. Yes, he would say, Yahweh dies when he is taken out of the desert. Yahweh only thrived in our places of need.
Slowly the professor returned to the classroom. He would smile and talk once again about the text before us. I looked around; did my classmates hear and see these musings from God? I observed some with eyelids barely open, others with mouths agape in awe, and still others shaking their heads and muttering under their breaths. Had we heard and seen the same thing? The mutterers were confused how this would help them save souls, and missed that he was trying to give them a soul. The half-asleep would endure and move on to the next class and missed they had a soul. The open mouthed would think they were too soulful. And I was careful to filter the knowledge for he had said it was a dangerous thing.
He once and only once was allowed to speak at Chapel—a bi-weekly worship gathering for the whole campus. The topic of the sermon was ‘Funeral for a Friend.’ He entered through the back doors with a coffin and pall bearers in tow. The pallbearers placed the plain wooden coffin down in the front of the chapel. He stepped up to the lectern and began to speak. “Today we are gathered to mourn the death of our God. We have, with our grand schemes and glorious buildings in our attempt to become God, killed Him. It is said He was a good and kind God, never truly appreciated while He was alive but today, maybe for a moment, we can remember God in all His glory before we nail the coffin shut and bury it under the ground.” He almost lost his job for this sermon; no one talked about it again except in whispers.
He often talked about Jacob’s encounter with an angel in the Old Testament wilderness. He mused that when you truly came into contact with God it left you with a limp for the rest of your life. The cocky strut of youth and pride was replaced with a struggle to walk straight, leaving a question mark behind every belief. Biblical truth was not like the proud television evangelist who were so sure of truth. Truth held by doubting Thomases, denying Peters, and whining Jeremiahs. Truth scarred you put you on unstable ground.
For years he remained in his classroom, staring up into the corner as if listening to some angel speak and he was almost apologetic, especially if it left you limping. He was either hated or loved by his students. Some of those who loved him became groupies. They would join him on the weekends at his farm where he was building a new home with his own hands and the hands of friends and college students. After a hard day’s work where he exhibited his renowned carpentry skills and where he did more looking off into the distance and talking everyone would gather around his table; his family and the hands for the day would gather and feast.
It was at one of these gatherings that the incident happened. His students sat enjoying a home-cooked meal for a change, enjoying their proximity to the great man. When he suddenly stopped and looked at the corner of the room and started to muse. The students sat on the edge of their seats, ready to be caught up in his rhapsody when they heard the voice of his wife, “Can it Karen. Give it a rest for a while.” He obediently stopped and smiled. The students snickered. The great Dr. Joines brought to his knees and reality by his wife. All the students knew they needed a wife like that. Their heads were so much in the clouds they needed someone in their lives to bring them back to earth. Many a student fell in love with his wife that day.
At the birth of his child he declared that oak branches, reaching across the road to each other on his drive home, were clapping their approval of the event. God spoke every day in the quiet of wilderness if we listened, and he always listened.
After college I lost touch with the goings-on of Dr. Joines. Other professors came and went into my heart and head. My life was consumed by working with the homeless and starting my own family. But somehow I still hear his voice and musings.
I do not know what happened in the rest of his life. Did he finally get fired when the fundamentalists took over the Southern Baptist Convention? Did he face the death of his children or did the magic leave his marriage? I do not know how life challenged him. But I do know how life challenged me. I got to know that knowledge could lead to wonder and beauty but more often than not it proved dangerous and upsetting. I encountered God many times through the lives of addicts, Persons Living with AIDS, homeless, and the mentally ill. But all these encounters though beautiful usually left me with a little limp in my soul. Knowledge was as he described it in his classes and awesome responsibility that once you had it you were responsible. To not act on the knowledge you had was not to live at all. But to act on that same knowledge could cause havoc and you would find yourself at odds with administrations.
After twenty-six years of teaching Dr. Joines faced a new wave of challenge in the mid-nineties when the fundamentalists complained about his wayward teachings. He was constantly called before the Provost or President to explain something he had taught or said. When asked about it he understated, ‘The whole thing was distasteful.” But at the same time he was using his carpentry skills to restore a home the university had purchased in the heart of London. It was a place to provide travel and cultural learning opportunities for generations of students. It must have brought him satisfaction to offer students another way to view the world.
Despite all the controversy that swirled around him he retired and never was fired. Though I no longer know where he is I am convinced of one thing. That wherever he is, he walks slowly with a cane in hand, down a road covered with oak limbs touching. Along the way he stops and looks off into the sky and for a brief fleeting moment he sees the face of God and he smiles, sighs, and continues walking. And I imagine occasionally the new truth still gets him in trouble.