Be Curious, Speak Up

Will you please introduce yourself and just tell me a little about yourself?

I am Robin McCall, and I have been teaching here since 2013 NTE (non-tenure eligible). And I teach Classical Hebrew and the Israelite Religion. I also teach a freshman seminar called “Sympathy for the Devil,” a sort of history about Satan and the development of the figure. This seminar is fun, and I really do love teaching that class. I am from Virginia, grew up in Richmond, and did my undergraduate work at UVA.

I have a twin sister that goes to UVA, so I definitely understand the rivalry that goes on between William and Mary and UVA, but of course, I do not hate UVA as much as other people.

So yeah, my area of specialty is the Hebrew Bible.

More along the lines of the Torah?

Yes. the whole Old Testament.

What made you get into teaching the Hebrew Bible?

That is a good question. I have had a kind of circuitous path. When I went to college [at UVA], I went in expecting to go into clinical psychology. [laughing] It was a terrible fit, honestly. I was pre-med for a year and did most of my pre-med courses in a year and then realized that I really do hate science. I was really bad at it even though I had already completed most of my major requirements. After finishing undergrad, I went to seminary to study church music. I have always been a musician.

Did you go to Union [Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia]?

I went across the street to Baptist Theological Seminary. I did take a lot of course at Union, though so I understand the connection.

I am from Richmond so whenever I hear an individual going to seminary, I immediately think of Union.

I loved [seminary]. It was a lot of fun, especially after suffering through pre-med in undergrad. While I was there, I had to take a class on the Old Testament, and Hebrew, and as it turned out, I absolutely loved it. I felt like all the secrets of the universe were being revealed and that I was seeing the world in whole new ways. It was amazing. So, I was a minister of music for three years while I was in seminary and then I went on to complete my PhD at Princeton Theological Seminary in that field.

I am basing this off of your seminary work, but are you Baptist?

I was, but I wouldn’t necessarily identify as Baptist now. I would identify more along the lines of nondenominational. Still Christian, but less practicing than I used to be. I think this happens a lot to people who work outside of their particular field. I have seriously thought of converting to Judaism many times, especially given my course of study. I still hold a messianic faith in Jesus, but my Christianity is heavily influenced by Judaism.

Has faith been a big part of your life?

It has. My parents were very active in Church. I was one of those Baptist kids who ran into Church as soon as the doors were open. And I never thought that I would go working in the field of religion. I can remember very specifically when I was in junior high school thinking that the Bible was unutterably boring and dull.

Oh boy. That is a hot take especially coming from a Southern Baptist.

[Laughing] You are not allowed to have that feeling, even growing up in Richmond. But it was true, and I did think that. When I was at UVA, I was a religion minor, and I actively avoided taking Biblical studies because I thought that the Bible was boring. And then I went to Seminary, and there they taught me how wrong I was for thinking that about the Bible. It was completely awesome and really fascinating, having your assumptions about the Bible radically changed. I think what really excited was that once you get into the academic study of religion, you are free to ask questions that you cannot ask in a denominational setting. The church and the school offer completely separate things. And so, when you are in the Church, there are questions that they discourage you from asking. Whereas with the School, they are like “those are the questions that you should be asking.” And that to me was very freeing. I really loved that. And the whole idea of the Hebrew Bible and the meaning of the name “Israel” is “wrestling with God.” That idea of wrestling with the text and wrestling with God is at the heart of what the Hebrew Bible is about.

Has this notion of “wrestling with God” defined your idea of faith?

It does. Asking questions and as a person of faith, having the belief that God is big enough and willing to field those questions.

I am Presbyterian, so I understand some of those feelings that you have felt and are currently feeling. There are questions that I feel like I cannot broach and touch upon even as a member of the Presbyterian Church. However, being a member of Intervarsity on campus gives me the opportunity to raise these questions that I feel like I cannot ask. Similar to what you were saying, faith evolves and mine certainly has over the past couple of years here on this campus and is still continuing to this day.

I wholeheartedly agree that the more ways that human beings experience God the better since we are able to see how other traditions understand God.

Does your idea of faith play a role in how you teach?

In a way it does. For one thing, I am keenly aware that I come from a Christian background, and I teach texts that belong to Christians yet belong to Jews a bit more or first in a sense. There is a matter of reverence and gratitude for being able to step into this arena of faith and have something to say about these texts. I am always trying to retain a sense of humility since I understand that these are not my texts to walk all over and give my own interpretation on the matter.

Especially with the Torah and the Bible, I understand what you mean.

And the language in those two separate texts have two completely different meanings depending on your interpretative context. For example, you can look at one of the texts that comes up all the time in my Freshman seminar, the text of Isaiah 14. “How we have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn!” In the Christian tradition, this means the fall the Lucifer, which is something that you will ever going to find in a Post-Biblical Christian context. In my field of study, no Israelite or Jew would interpret Isaiah 14 in this Christian context. How you read these texts plays a role in your own interpretive context. That critical understanding plays a role in how I teach since you have to have an awareness on the way that you read these texts. And because I was in grad school for a long time and did a lot of teaching as a graduate student in a Seminary context, I am sensitive to how disruptive it can be for people of faith particularly Christians, who are coming into this field of academic study of the Hebrew Bible experiencing some super weird ideas for the first time. What I mean by that is the undermining of assumptions that they have held for a long time.

Is that a struggle for the religious studies department here at WM since y’all try to have people understand faith but not try to undermine their own faith?

Yes! Exactly! That is definitely a big part of religious studies. I often encounter the idea from students that as an academic, I want to undermine their faith — that in order to be a good scholar of religion, you have to be an atheist, which is completely wrong. There are certainly many excellent atheist scholars of religion. But you can be both a religious scholar and a person of faith. I am often about trying to explain to students who are already practicing Christians or Jews how I am here to open up your faith and make it bigger. And if you have faith, I want you to not hide from any questions that you might want to ask because your faith might fall apart. How can I help you approach these texts and ask questions of these texts in ways that do not close these doors but rather open those doors and enrich what you personally believe?

What was the hardest thing that you have encountered as a professor? Has a student come to you wondering about what they believe and whether God is even real?

I have experienced those conversations. I kinda enjoy those conversations. I do not believe that these conversations are necessarily hard because I believe that we all at some point are going to hit that wall.

Some earlier on than others?

Yeah. This is in large part what college is for since you are figuring out what your role is in the world and how you are perhaps different from your parents or from people who have influenced your identity through your life and will continue to do so. But you are beginning to figure out the person you want to be, and this [questioning of faith] is a huge part of the process. Faith or lack of faith, since I have some students who come in as atheists and struggle with these texts from a very different position, are parts of your identity. I want to make [the academic student of religion] something fun to explore. It is supposed to be an adventure and [you should] not be afraid of it because this is wonderful, and I love what I do. It does not have to be a bad thing at all. I generally find that the academic study of religion will get people more interested in finding out their roots. They love [finding out] where did [they] come [from] and what have people before me believed in and how do I fit into [these beliefs]. This may means letting go of some things, but it may also mean finding deep value in things that you didn’t expect to find deep value in.

That is really deep. Being a person of faith myself, I have never really talked to a religious studies scholar considering that I have talked to political theorists and literature scholars. I think coming to talk with someone who also believes in the same faith as I do is eye-opening since even though we may not see eye to eye on some aspects of Christianity, we still believe in the same God.

I do believe that. We as Christians have a changing place in this world and I think that to some extent that the academic study of religion can offer the world since the academic study of religion is different than faith-based study of religion. For example, one of the early things that students in my History of the Israelite Religion class encounter is the fact that we do not have an archaeological evidence to support the historical and empirical validity of the Exodus. This raises the issue of how we view truth. I believe that those who are in the “nones” place, the spiritual but not religious place, find that the academic study of religion scratches some of those itches [of looking for spiritual meaning]. I think humans are just looking for things that are bigger than we actually are.

Is this why we are studying the Hebrew text? Are you trying to give a scholarly interpretation of the text while also acknowledging the historical context of the Hebrews?

Inevitably, we are looking for interpretation. I think that these texts are situated within a culture of real people. The historical circumstances of their lives gave rise to the texts and their meaning interactions. The Hebrew Bible is a collection of texts that raises the question of what it means to be a Jew especially during a time of oppression such as the 6th Century Babylonian Exile. What do we do if we don’t live in the land of Israel? Can we have to worship in the same way, or do we need new practices? If we’ve been taken away from these cultural touchstones, how can we worship our God? That is what these texts are really about. I want my students regardless of what traditions they come from to read the texts and question the historical context. How do these texts help people shape their own identity?

Thank you so much for this interview. I just have one more question. If you could say anything to the future women of William and Mary given the definitive impact you have made as a female professor and as a woman of faith, what would you say?

What I want to always encourage women to do is to never be afraid to ask questions. And if people refuse to answer them, ask questions in different ways. Be curious. Understand that your questions may trouble the status quo and that isn’t a bad thing since it opens up new ways of viewing the world. And nobody will understand the world in exactly the ways that you do. Do not just sit back and think you have nothing to add to the conversation. Nobody will understand what you have read and what you think unless you speak up. Bring your voice to the table. The conversation is always richer if you bring a myriad of viewpoints to the table.

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