“If You Call Yourself a Jew”

I love the way RBL reviews come so after the fact. Philip Esler has reviewed Rafael Rodriguez’s work on Romans, which was published back in 2014. It’s a good excuse to revisit the book, which follows the Stowers school that Romans is addressed primarily to Gentiles, rather than (as I believe) a mixed audience of Jews and Gentiles. Why then does Romans sound so Jewish-oriented unlike the rest of Paul’s letters? Rodriguez’s solution is to view the interlocutor (conversation partner) of Rom 2:17 as a gentile proselyte to Judaism — in other words, as Rodriguez claims, someone of Gentile ethnicity but of Jewish religiosity, and who teaches Gentiles to become Jewish proselytes like himself.

As Esler points out in his review, this allows Rodriguez to have his cake and eat it, for the person addressed in Rom 2:17 is both a Gentile and a Jew: “Paul still imagines a gentile in vv. 17 ff., only now this gentile has taken on the yoke of Torah — an individual of gentile origin who wants to call himself a Jew”. But how is this person a transgressor of the Torah, even to the point that his circumcision breaks the law? Rodriguez’s answer is that the circumcision wasn’t performed on the eighth day as required by Lev. 12:3. Esler asks for “some evidence for the idea that a law requiring adult Israelites to circumcise their sons on the eighth day could be, or ever was, invoked as a bar, or indeed have any relevance, to adult non-Israelites wishing to join Israel and willing to be circumcised to do so.” Indeed, I can’t imagine that being an obstacle at all. Not only were there probably Jewish sons circumcised on days other than the eighth, Abraham himself (Paul’s hero) wasn’t understood to be in the Old Testament or intertestamental literature.

Esler also warns about false distinctions between “ethnic” and “religious” Jews, saying that “becoming a Jew/Judean through circumcision and adoption of Jewish/Judean customs meant adoption of Jewish/Judean ethnic identity, not the adoption of a separable and separate Jewish religious identity, which was nonexistent in the first century.” Then there are the Jewish addresses of Rom 16, which Rodriguez (following Stowers) sees as third-party greetings rather than greetings to the actual recipients of the letter — which I agree with Esler asks a bit much.

I admire Rodríguez’s argument as much as I see problems with it. As someone who has spent years on Romans, I’m continually intrigued by various solutions to the audience puzzle. For Rodríguez, Rom 1:18–1:31 addresses the depraved immoral pagan, 2:1–16 the elitist moralizing pagan, and 2:17–29 the gentile proselyte to Judaism. That last allows him creativity at the point of Rom 7:9 which says, “I once lived apart from the law.”

The more plausible outline, as I see it, is to look at the overarching argument of Rom 1:18-3:20, where Paul takes down Gentiles and Jews, but in different ways, so as to put them on the same playing field while underscoring differences so as to reduce competition between the two ethnic factions. One of the key points of Esler’s 2003 book is that in Romans Paul avoids saying, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal 3:28). He’s more enlightened than he was in I Corinthians and Galatians, and learning from his failures now understands that there should indeed be “Jew and Greek in Christ”, at least to a significant degree, so that differences can be respected rather than erased. On that understanding, the outline of Rom 1:18-3:20 would look like this:

Both groups are judged (1:18-3:20)

1. Gentiles are judged apart from the law (1:18-2:5)

2. Gentiles are subject to a “natural” law written on their pagan hearts, as much as Jews are to the Torah (2:6-16)

1′. Jews are judged by the law (2:17-2:29)

2′. Jews under the law are dominated by the power of sin as much as Gentiles under ungodliness, though in a completely different way: the law accentuates sin when transgression occurs (3:1-20)

The equal attention paid to both Gentile and Jewish factions in Rome is then repeated in Rom 6:1-7:25, this time from the standpoint of baptism and death.

Both groups die (6:1-7:25)

— Both die to the power of sin (6:1-15)

1. Gentiles die to sin and become slaves of God (6:16-23)

2. Jews die to the law and become slaves of the spirit (7:1-25)

Again, both groups are seen to be on the same footing but in different ways. And “dying to the law” in Rom 7 is run parallel to the Eden story in Genesis. Rodriguez’s view that Rom 7:9 — “I once lived apart from the law” — refers to a Gentile proselyte is too superficial for Paul’s overarching purpose.

For reasons that escape me, many persist in denying the focus of the Genesis story. Esler himself is guilty of this, but to me it’s rather clear that Adam looms over the section of Rom 5-8, and comes to particular focus in the parallels of Rom 7:7-13, where “alive” and newly created, he is placed in Eden (Gen. 2:7-9) and “commanded” by God not to eat of the tree of life (Gen. 2:16-17), whereafter the serpent “seizes opportunity” to further its own ends (Gen. 3:1-5) and Eve complains that she was “deceived” (Gen. 3:13). God then kills humanity, punishing it with mortality (Gen. 3:19,22-23). As much as I’ve tried in the past, I can’t escape the conclusion that Paul has deliberately assumed the role of Adam in order to “prove” that life under the Torah replicates Adam/Eve’s failure under the commandment in Eden. His argument is an exegetical one, in effect urging that the traps and snares of the Torah trace back to the horror of the fall, which in turn fulfills his ambitious desire to prove that Jews are no better under the law (7:1-25), than Gentiles are under ungodliness (6:16-23), each requiring the dramatic rescue operation of 8:1-17.

At the very least, Esler’s review is good cause to revisit Rodriguez’s stimulating explanation as to why Paul’s interlocutor “calls himself a Jew”. I have to admit it’s one of the better efforts from the Stowers camp.

13 Reasons Why

As a rule I avoid teen dramas but couldn’t resist the lure of 13 Reasons Why. I expected a lame story that was poorly acted, but that would perhaps examine high-school bullying and suicide in ways that lived up to the hand-wringing hype. I got the opposite. 13 Reasons Why is an astonishingly well-acted TV series with cracking mystery and intrigue, and boasts many effective stylistic choices. Unfortunately its message is the wrong one. And yet the premise for that message works dramatically well, which makes the series rather interesting to assess.

For those who know nothing about it — and keep in mind I’m describing the TV series, not the book which I haven’t read — the story is narrated by a girl from the grave, who has killed herself for “13 reasons” (read: 13 assholes) which she has recorded on old-fashioned audiotapes so there’s no chance of her indictments going viral. She blames 13 people for her decision to kill herself, or perhaps only 12, since one of the kids (Clay, the main character, in the above pic) is very nice and sensitive; Hannah admits he doesn’t deserve to be on the tapes, yet she also implies that his failure to be more assertive in pursuing her romantically was a severe push to her suicide. Her other reasons for killing herself run the gamut: she was bullied, slut-shamed, stalked, lashed out at unjustly, assaulted, and then finally raped. The tapes function as a psychotic chain letter calling out everyone who did these things to her. The tapes are then passed from one asshole to the next, so that each has to look in the mirror and confront the beast within. Which means that each kid gets to hear Hannah’s judgments on the other twelve, and as a result these jerks come to share an unspeakable secret. Hannah has taken careful measures to be sure that her tormentors will indeed listen to and pass on these tapes in sequence as she instructs them to do, and not destroy them or throw them away.

As I said, the acting performances are great, and the two leads Katherine Langord (Hannah) and Dylan Minnette (Clay) deserve special praise. Every time they’re on screen together they channel the right chemistry, unable to admit their feelings but plainly drawn to each other. Every step in their relationship feels like a weird success story that doesn’t go anywhere, which only tightens the tragedy in the present. Flashbacks can be an annoying device, but 13 Reasons Why uses them brilliantly, and they occur frequently and without warning. As Clay listens to the tapes, the past peels away like an onion, revealing more and more ugly secrets. The show takes bold risks for a teen drama — the kind we need to see more of in the genre. But as I also said, there are problems, which I will address in turn.

Problem #1: The “power of kindness”

The gravest flaw is the lead premise: that if kids stop bullying and start being more kind to their peers, suicides will drop. The fact is that the vast majority of teen suicides are the result of mental illness, not external problems like bullying, which may contribute to suicide but are very rarely the root cause. An analogy would be mass shootings, for which gun control is often seen as the remedy. We do need tighter gun laws for many reasons, but mass shootings isn’t one of them. (Mass killers almost invariably use firearms that wouldn’t be restricted by an assault-weapons ban; mass killers plan months ahead and find illegal ways of obtaining what they want, just as drug buyers do; improved background checks are useless since most mass murderers don’t have criminal records or any history of psychiatric hospitalization. Etc, etc.)

Bullying is like easy gun access, a serious problem, and to its credit 13 Reasons Why portrays bullying in realistic ways that I hope will prompt more discussion and paths to remediation. But however effective we become at abuse management, it will hardly make a dent in suicide. Depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and bipolar disorders are what need heavy attention, but in 13 Reasons Why mental illness is not presented as the reason — or even a reason — for Hannah’s desperate decision. Her classmates get all the blame, to the extent that one of them is even driven to say that, “We all killed Hannah Baker”. While it’s good to see bullies and jerks own up to their actions, it’s the wrong message to send that they all (and in more or less equal measure) caused Hannah’s death.

Even the protagonist Clay berates himself, in his case for doing the right thing! As they are kissing and about to have sex, Hannah suddenly has flashbacks to her bullies, and tells him to stop, which he does. Everyone knows that’s the right thing. Then she tells him hysterically to leave the room, which he also does after repeatedly asking if she’s okay. She has to repeat her dismissal multiple times because he’s so worried about her, and yet his implied “crime” is that he finally obeyed her instead of defying her and staying in the room to insist on consoling her and explaining that he loves her. On the tape Hannah says this is what she really wanted him to do. That’s a grossly irresponsible message. It’s hard enough to educate people that “no means no”, and here we have the double standard that “no means no” when it comes to sex, but the opposite when it comes to what follows.

The show condemns Clay repeatedly for not being proactive enough, and he accepts full blame: “I cost a girl her life,” he says, “because I was afraid to love her.” That’s a realistic reaction owing to survivor guilt, but Clay is wrong to blame himself. The guidance counselor Mr. Porter is condemned similarly, when he refuses to chase after Hannah when she flees his office in frustration. The show writers operate out of a surprisingly judgmental framework made worse by their mistaken assumptions about kindness.

In sum, by focusing on everything the 13 kids did (or supposedly didn’t do enough, in the case of Clay and Mr. Porter), to the exclusion of any mention of mental illness on the part of Hannah, 13 Reasons Why vastly overrates the power of kindness. Hannah’s suicide is presented solely as the result of external causes. Even rape is rarely, in and of itself, the cause of suicide. (Rape can cause post-traumatic stress disorder or major depressive disorder, which are mental illnesses, and in those cases 13% of rape victims will indeed attempt suicide.) Being kind is obviously a good message, but in a drama about suicide it becomes misplaced.

Problem #2: Glorified Hannah, demonized peers

If kindness is the (supposed) antidote to suicide, then suicide can be seen as an act of righteousness to wreak vengeance on one’s bullies. This is what critics of 13 Reasons Why complain about: that the novel and TV series glorify teen suicide, and that the example of Hannah may even inspire copycats. First of all, any real-world copycat of Hannah is about as likely as a serial-killer inspired by a film like Seven, or a cop killer inspired by Breaking Bad to dissolve the corpse in a bath of acid. Yes those sort of things happen but only extremely rarely. No matter how graphic and sensational, literature and film seldom gives people homicidal or suicidal ideas they feel compelled to enact on. (The exception would be philosophical or religious scripture, as for example the Qur’an which inspires daily routine mass-murder activity, and even then we don’t condone the banning of holy writ.) Censorship is never the answer, and shame on the school administrators and librarians who have advocated removing 13 Reasons Why from circulation.

There is some truth to the claim that the TV show glorifies Hannah. Her suicide, after all, is portrayed as a form of empowerment, as she exacts retribution from the grave against those who were nasty to her. It’s unrealistic but works as a dramatic narrative, because as the tapes proceed Hannah becomes as much a “villain” as a tragic protagonist. The narrative is so consumed by her over-heaping guilt trips on these kids that it loses sight of her as a person and her mental problems (again: the show doesn’t indicate that she has any). Most of the 13 kids aren’t so bad. They’re jerks in varying degrees and misguided in the ways of teenagers. Four of them even commit crimes: Tyler stalks Hannah and photographs her through her bedroom window at night; Marcus assaults her publicly, just to show off for his friends; Sheri drives her home from a party, accidentally knocks over a stop-sign, and then ditches her by the side of the road without reporting the accident to the police as Hannah urges, thus later causing the death of a classmate at that intersection; Bryce rapes her, after already raping another another girl days before, in his home swimming pool. Everyone agrees that Bryce should fall off a cliff, and I might be inclined to push Marcus over with him, but Tyler and Sheri are sympathetic characters even if their crimes are inexcusable.

Justin is particularly well-used. In the early episodes I couldn’t stand him, but we later learn that he comes from a hideous home life, where his mother is a drug addict and his stepfather is physically abusive. Justin “allowed” Bryce to circulate the photo of Hannah’s legs, and then to rape Jessica at a party, without trying to stop him in either case, and he genuinely beats himself up for the latter. He feels guilty to the point that he will do anything for Jessica to atone for his inadequacy — even offering to kill Bryce for her. This doesn’t make him decent, but I did feel for him as he deteriorates into an emotional wreck. Then there is Alex, a sensitive guy, but whose father is a macho police cop who encourages Alex to be aggressive to prove his manliness. Alex is the one who most regrets mistreating Hannah, to the point, in a ridiculous shocker, that he ends up taking his own life at the end of the show. My understanding is that Alex doesn’t commit suicide in the novel, and indeed this was a very poor adaptation on the part of the script writers; I didn’t buy Alex’s suicide at all. But aside from that, his character is handled well; there’s nothing especially reprehensible about him. He just acts childish in a way that Hannah takes to heart.

In my opinion, only three of the 13 are truly heartless: Bryce, Courtney, and Marcus (in descending order of assholery). Bryce is a remorseless rapist, Courtney a vile backstabber, and Marcus a despicable save-ass. Ryan is soulless too though harder to gauge. (For my grades of the 13 in terms of the damage they cause to Hannah vs. how bad they are as people, see the appendix at the bottom of the post).

What I’m saying is that the glorified hyper-vindictive Hannah, while problematic in a real-world way, has the advantage of not letting us off the hook. We lose sympathy for this tragic heroine when her bullies emerge as fallible and in some cases likeable enough kids who make naturally stupid mistakes. And that’s very realistic. It may not be the message the show writers intended, but it comes through against the grain of their “We all killed Hannah Baker” nonsense. Hannah turns out to be a great character, if you look at it the right way.

Problem #3: The character of Tony

Clay speaks for many viewers, and certainly for myself, when he scorns Tony as an “unhelpful Yoda” who does little more than appear out of nowhere, look down on Clay with patronizing condescension, and offer nothing by way of wisdom other than tell Clay he must listen to the tapes to learn everything for himself. I understand he’s the guardian of Hannah’s plan so that everything goes according to her wishes, but he should have been kept off-screen more instead of repeatedly turning up just at the right moments in this melodramatically contrived way. There were times, frankly, when Tony almost ruined the show for me.

The upshot is that I really liked 13 Reasons Why and may even read the book to see how the source material differs. It’s a well-crafted drama with moral missteps, but those errors have been forcing the right questions on a massive scale. From that point of view I could judge it a complete success.


Appendix: The Rogues Gallery

In rating Hannah’s tormentors, I assign “damage” and “asshole” grades, each on a scale of 0-10. Sometimes both grades are high, but some of the kids are relatively decent (low asshole grades) even if they did something which really hurt Hannah (high damage grades). The damage points are interesting to consider, bearing in mind that despite Hannah’s accusations, none of these offenses usually cause suicide in the real-world, or at least without the presence of mental illness.

Episode 1: Justin Foley (Tape 1, Side A)

Damage grade: 7
Asshole grade: 6

He sneaks a photo of Hannah’s spread legs while they’re in a park, and then allows Bryce to send it viral around the school, thus starting the chain of rumors and slut-shaming. Justin however is more weak and ineffectual than a really bad person. He’s guilty mostly of what he allows Bryce to do (as also in episode 9). In later episodes he becomes a much more sympathetic character as we learn about his abusive home life.

Episode 2: Jessica Davis (Tape 1, Side B)

Damage grade: 4
Asshole grade: 3

She wrongly blames Hannah for her boyfriend breakup, smacks Hannah hard across the face, and ends their friendship. The result is that Hannah retreats into loneliness and never makes any friends after Jessica. But Jessica isn’t malicious, she’s just bitchy and insecure. Losing friends — even unfairly — is a part of life unfortunately. Though getting belted in the face when you don’t deserve it is rather uncalled for.

Episode 3: Alex Standall (Tape 2, Side A)

Damage grade: 3
Asshole grade: 1

He makes a list of “bests and worsts” in the school, and includes Hannah as having the best ass, thus aiding in the ruin of her friendship with Jessica, while also lending credence to the rumors started by Justin. Alex is actually a decent kid (especially considering the macho dad who raises him), and he very quickly becomes sorry for his childish behavior and the impact it has on Hannah. His “bests and worsts” list doesn’t single out Hannah for special shame, and in my view his act is comparatively mild as pranks go.

Episode 4: Tyler Down (Tape 2, Side B)

Damage grade: 8
Asshole grade: 4

No one likes a stalker, and Tyler (like Hannah) takes abuse from the entire school for his ongoing photography efforts. He stalks Hannah and takes pictures of her at night through her bedroom window — which is a crime and scars Hannah since she can’t feel safe in her own home. On the other hand, as a person, Tyler is motivated by sincere affection for Hannah, and I see him more as a pathetic loser than a genuinely dangerous creep. Thus my low asshole grade compared to the serious damage he causes.

Episode 5: Courtney Crimsen (Tape 3, Side A)

Damage grade: 8
Asshole grade: 9

After Bryce I consider her the worst of the 13. At first she fills the friendship void left by Jessica, in addition to being a fun lesbo-lover on the side. But when Tyler takes photos of their sexual activities in Hannah’s bed and then sends them viral around the school, Courtney not only shuts Hannah out but throws her under the bus in the worst way just to keep her lesbian orientation secret. She passes off her affair as someone else having sex with Hannah (since Tyler’s photo is unclear), slut-shaming Hannah with a vengeance. It would be one thing if Courtney’s fear of homophobia were more understandable. But she has two gay fathers, it’s the 21st century, and the student body doesn’t seem disproportionately bigoted. She gets even worse in later episodes, denying Hannah’s claim that Bryce is a rapist in order to shield herself when she is subpoenaed for a deposition. Courtney is a true asshole, and one who repeatedly shocked me in watching this series.

Episode 6: Marcus Cole (Tape 3, Side B)

Damage grade: 8
Asshole grade: 9

He’s a close rival to Courtney, and I score his points the same. He’s a positive role model for the school with a respectable image, but behind that facade he’s vile. He tries to finger Hannah while sitting with her at a diner, and more to show off for his friends who are watching nearby than to gratify himself. This is the first time Hannah is sexually assaulted and it does considerable damage to her self-image. Also like Courtney, by the end of the series Marcus is hell-bent on saving his ass and reputation at all costs, even if it means siding with a rapist like Bryce. I would rank Courtney slightly worse than him by the margin of her treachery — she became Hannah’s friend for a short time before shafting her mercilessly, while Marcus was never Hannah’s friend to begin with — but it’s admittedly a close call.

Episode 7: Zach Dempsey (Tape 4, Side A)

Damage grade: 7
Asshole grade: 4

He may be part of the Justin-Marcus-Bryce circle, but I actually think Zach is a pretty decent guy. He does something cruel to Hannah and it wounds her, but I see him as going against his nature on this point. He sabotages her (stealing and destroying the comfort notes left for her in the Brown Paper Bag Program), not out of malice but because he’s unable to cope with rejection. Because he’s rich and popular and good looking, he’s probably used to getting his way all the time, so when he extends a kind hand to Hannah (and to his credit he is genuinely upset by Marcus’ outrageous’ assault on her), he can’t get over it like he should when she spurns his intentions.

Episode 8: Ryan Shaver (Tape 4, Side B)

Damage grade: 2
Asshole grade: 8

I see Ryan as the inverse of someone like Tyler. What he does is less bad than who he is. He’s on the tapes for publishing one of Hannah’s personal poems in the school’s literary magazine. He published it as an anonymous piece, but some students guessed Hannah wrote it, which embarrassed her. Frankly I don’t see this as a terrible injustice against Hannah (especially since it’s anonymous), though it’s true he should not have published it without her permission. More insufferable is Ryan’s arrogance. His superiority complex makes him thoroughly immune to complaints about the way he offends and bothers people. That’s basically the definition of an asshole.

Episode 9: Justin Foley (Tape 5, Side A)

Damage grade: 5
Asshole grade: 6

Episode 9 is unique, not only for taking a second swing at one of Hannah’s tormentors, but this time for something that doesn’t even effect Hannah directly. Jessica is the victim here, not Hannah, who is a hidden observer. Hannah is effected in terms of the guilt she suffers for staying quiet and hidden as Jessica is raped before her eyes, which in my view makes her worthy of as much blame as Justin.

So again, as on his first tape entry (episode 1), Justin is indicted by Hannah primarily for what he allows Bryce to do, which in this case is criminal. He lets Bryce enter the bedroom where Jessica is lying drunk-unconscious, and of course Bryce rapes her. Hannah is hiding (she has just thrown Clay out of the room after almost fucking him) and so witnesses the rape. As stated before, Justin is weak but not nasty, and while that doesn’t excuse his unwillingness to oppose Bryce, he later beats himself up for Jessica’s trauma. I give Justin a damage score of 5, in reflection of how his ineffectual behavior against Bryce’s rape of Jessica impacts Hannah. (It would be a 10 if it was Bryce’s damage score as it impacts Jessica, and perhaps a 7 or 8 if it were Bryce’s score as it impacts Hannah.) But Hannah is a colossal hypocrite for coming down hard on Justin when she is guilty of the same thing. If she wasn’t willing to club Bryce over the head with something, she should have at least yelled and gone for help.

Episode 10: Sheri Holland (Tape 5, Side B)

Damage grade: 9
Asshole grade: 2

She’s the inverse of Ryan: a good person on the inside whose single lapse in judgment results in disaster, namely the death of a classmate. She drives Hannah home at night from a night party and crashes into a stop sign, but instead of calling the police as Hannah urges, she panics and ditches Hannah by the side of the road. That night someone is killed driving through the intersection. Sheri is so appalled by her error that she eventually goes out of her way to do things for the grieving parents of the classmate.

Episode 11: Clay Jensen (Tape 6, Side A)

Damage grade: 10 (*)
Asshole grade: 0

There’s not an asshole-bone in Clay’s body, and Hannah acknowledges that he doesn’t deserve to be on the tapes. But he’s on them anyway because Hannah wishes that he had ignored her demand that he leave the bedroom after she freaked out during their foreplay. For this he blames himself (“I killed Hannah because I was too scared to love her”), and this is clearly the show writers’ message which crops up elsewhere. It’s an irresponsible message. No means no, and Clay was correct to do exactly as Hannah told him — stopping the sex and leaving the room.

As Hannah tells it, I would have to conclude that the damage Clay did to her by not staying in the room and pursuing his romantic intentions earns him a score of 10. It clearly tore her to pieces. But since he did what can only be construed as the right thing, he doesn’t really deserve any damage points. If guys are expected to do the opposite of what a girl tells them in one case, then there’s no reason they shouldn’t act the same way when it comes to sex.

Episode 12: Bryce Walker (Tape 6, Side B)

Damage grade: 10
Asshole grade: 10

No commentary required. Bryce is an unrepentant rapist who belongs in jail.

Episode 13: Mr. Porter (Tape 7, Side A)

Damage grade: 5 (*)
Asshole grade: 1

The guidance counselor is like Clay. His moral compass is perfectly fine, and he tries to convince Hannah that life is worth living. His fault, as Hannah sees it, is that he failed to chase after her and beg her to come back when she flees his office in frustration. Which is uncharitable of Hannah in the extreme. Counselors and therapists shouldn’t be expected to chase after patients like this, any more than guys like Clay should be expected to flout a girl’s command to get lost and leave her alone. I do give him one asshole point for suggesting that she could “just move on” if she isn’t willing to name her rapist. Even if that’s pragmatically what some rape victims choose to do (not file criminal charges), one should never use the phrase “just move on” with a rape victim. I give him a damage grade of 5 right down the middle; on the one hand, his counseling failure is portrayed by Hannah as the last straw and a big one, but in essence she had already made her decision after Bryce; Mr. Porter was a last-ditch effort.

Retrospective: The 20 Albums of Rush (1974-2012)

The Rush band members are over 60 years old now, with 20 albums to their name. It seems like yesterday they were in their twenties balling out “The Spirit of Radio” for the first time. Time doesn’t stand still, as they insist; it zings by. So here’s my homage to their five periods of music, at four albums a piece. Every album has a theme to which the songs point in some way, which I’ve listed. Following that I have bravely attempted to rank the albums, which will probably draw plenty of fire and counter-opinions.

Hard-Progressive (’74-’76)

The fledgling years. When I’m in a Zeppelinesque mood, I go to the first album, and when I want Rush at its best ever, I go to the last.

Rush (’74). Getting a rush from rock n’ roll: “Let’s be Led Zeppelin.”
Fly By Night (’75). The spirit of the moment.
Caress of Steel (’75). Swords, guillotines, midway rides.
2112 (’76). Freedom, liberty, and independence; anti-collectivism.

Progressive-Classic (’77-’81)

As the previous era tamed hard rock with prog, in this period the progressive style becomes disciplined and more accessible, culminating in the famous Moving Pictures.

A Farewell to Kings (’77). The doom of monarchies.
Hemispheres (’78). Subconscious drives; the duality of the mind (reason/emotion).
Permanent Waves (’80). The relationship between nature and technology; being true, and outlasting fads and fashions.
Moving Pictures (’81). Musical portraits (each song a mini-movie); the effect of the spotlight.

Synth (’82-’87)

The era loved or despised. I’m with the former. Rush evolved by taking cues from the more talented bands of the ’80s — Peter Gabriel, U2, The Police, Talking Heads. Hard-sounding guitar gave way to tight, stylish keyboard performances and a darker tone to the music. On whole I consider this era as strong as the previous two.

Signals (’82). New generations vs. the old; the success and failure of communication.
Grace Under Pressure (’83). Surviving the horrors of the world and learning from them; the human response to external stress.
Power Windows (’85). The power of money, government, emotion, dreams, mysticism.
Hold Your Fire (’87). Time and events; turning dreams and goals into reality; controlling instincts (“fire” = “instinct”; thus “hold your fire”).

Pop-Alternative (’89-’96)

The difficult era to define, when Rush tried returning to its roots while also breaking new ground. Foes of the synth period rejoiced to hear more guitar and less keyboards. The era was marred by the widely hated Roll the Bones (the absolute worst of the 20 albums), then saved by the raging comeback, Counterparts.

Presto (’89). Appearances vs. reality; illusions; and the ways we pretend to be magical (problems don’t vanish with the “wave of a wand”).
Roll the Bones (’91). Fate, chance, taking risks. (Ironically fitting: the album itself was a risk — there’s not a single decent song on it.)
Counterparts (’93). Opposites and pairs; the “nuts and bolts” of human life; the mysteries of relationships.
Test for Echo (’96). The importance of communication and the need for feedback.

Progressive-Metal (’02-’12)

The Renaissance period, which has been rather bad, though the last album single-handedly redeems it.

Vapor Trails (’02). Vivid memories; loss, finality, and finding the determination to carry on in an uncaring world.
Feedback (’04). (Cover album.)
Snakes and Arrows (’07). The good and bad sides of religious faith.
Clockwork Angels (’12). Free will vs. determinism.

How They Rank

1. Signals. 1982. 5 stars. I can only imagine if Rush had decided to evolve in the direction of heavy metal that was becoming popular in the early ’80s. We might have had Snakes & Arrows and Clockwork Angels thirty years early. Instead they went in the direction of my favorite ’80s bands — Peter Gabriel, U2, Depeche Mode, Talking Heads, etc. — focusing more on the music’s texture than its power. Lifeson’s guitar action receded into the background as Peart and Lee’s synth electronics, keyboards, drum machines, and sequencers took over big time. These changes would last through four albums, the band’s synth period of ’82-’87, and would be regarded as a betrayal by the purists. The first of the four, Signals, is a true masterpiece. Appropriately, the album’s theme is new generations vs. the old. The lead track “Subdivisions” is still my favorite Rush song, about adolescent isolation in the suburbs; it’s quintessentially minimalist. “The Analog Kid” has one of the best choruses ever; “Losing It” makes my heart break; “The Weapon” and “Chemistry” are genius; even the pop filler “New World Man” is pretty damn good.

Best Tracks: Subdivisions, The Weapon, The Analog Kid, Losing It.

2. 2112. 1976. 5 stars. It should have failed, with no hit single and half the album a sprawling narrative of science fiction. But against every odd 2112 gave Rush sudden fame. It marked the clear point at which their hard Zeppelin and cerebral progressive styles — which had clashed rather badly on Fly by Night and Caress of Steel — came together just right. The 20-minute title track “2112” is about a guy living in a controlled future with no art, music, or creativity; he finds a strange device (a guitar) in a cave behind a waterfall, and after learning how to play it he takes it to the music-hating priests who are the overlords; the priests destroy the guitar, telling him that music was the evil that almost destroyed humanity; he then kills himself in martyrdom. The side helpings are frankly almost as good, especially “A Passage to Bangkok”, dealing with marijuana tourism, and “Lessons”, the only Rush song composed entirely by Alex Lifeson. 2112 is Rush’s best album and my third favorite prog album, after Selling England by the Pound (Genesis) and Wish You Were Here (Floyd).

Best Tracks: 2112, Passage to Bangkok, Lessons.

3. Moving Pictures. 1981. 5 stars. Most critics give it pride of place, and you can understand why. Seriously, who hasn’t heard every song on Moving Pictures? It’s one great track after another. “Tom Sawyer” remains the band’s signature song, “Limelight” laments the oppression of fame, “Witch Hunt” examines mob violence, and “The Camera Eye” swirls with atmospheric odes to New York and London. If you haven’t heard Moving Pictures at all, you probably live at the North Pole. It’s the record that fired up rock fans, whether or not they ever liked Rush before, and is timeless in the purest sense. The album cover still makes me wonder. Is it a sly statement against socialism? One pair of movers is taking away religion, the other two pairs are bringing in a state-controlled economy (dogs playing poker) and Satanic practices (a naked man’s submission to a pentagram), whilst a horrified woman looking on is being “comforted” by a Russian official.

Best Tracks: Limelight, Witch Hunt, The Camera Eye, Vital Signs.

4. Hold Your Fire. 1987. 4 ½ stars...because this one will certainly draw fire, for being in my top five. Fans hate it with a passion. It’s the last of the four synth albums, and takes the keyboard approach to its extreme conclusion, resulting in the band’s biggest departure from their ’70s roots. With all due apologies to the purists, I love Hold Your Fire and never get tired of it. Unlike its predecessor Power Windows, it has aged wonderfully. There’s not a single bad song on it. It may not be the masterpiece Signals is, but even more than Signals it shows the band perfecting a style completely outside the “Rush orbit”. People who despise the synth era are basically just saying they don’t like synth. Any musical genre can be good, and Hold Your Fire hits a home run with its shivering ethereal texture. I think most people who profess hatred for “Time Stand Still” are actually liars. “Mission” is simply pristine; “Prime Mover” the hidden gem. It’s called the Red Album by hard-core haters. I call it that too, but to reclaim it positively.

Best Tracks: Lock and Key, Time Stand Still, Mission, Prime Mover.

5. Clockwork Angels. 2012. 4 ½ stars. The Other Red Album, as I call it, could not be more opposite from the one above, but it’s just as good. Hold Your Fire gave the finger to Rush purists; Clockwork Angels appeals to them by returning to the conceptual story-arcs of the ’70s. One is ethereal grace, the other a combo of prog and heavy metal. The story-arc concerns a young man who journeys from his farm village to a big city ruled by a despot, and along the way he witnesses the worst acts of cruelty and treachery, yet clings to his optimism. The theme is free will vs. determinism, a subject about which the band has always had strong feelings and come down on the side of will. I strongly disagree (I believe free will is an illusion), but that doesn’t diminish the power of this album’s narrative and thundering melodies. The album closes on “The Garden”, the band’s best slow song ever. Clockwork Angels is a completely unexpected comeback album (I’m still addicted to it), easily the best thing Rush has done since Hold Your Fire, and if it ends up being their swan song it’s a perfect exit.

Best Tracks: The Anarchist, Halo Effect, Seven Cities of Gold, The Garden.

6. A Farewell to Kings. 1977. 4 stars. Its predecessor 2112 merged progressive rock with the hard Zeppelin-style, and the result was perfection. Now in Farewell to Kings, the band aimed for a purer progressive voice (Hemispheres in the following year would purify it completely, IMO too much for its own good). Peart expanded drum sounds with keyboard percussion and tubular bells; Lifeson lessened the rage of his guitar; and Lee discovered keyboards and synthesizer pedals. And they recorded the album in England, were progressive rock was thriving under softer and more idyllic sensibilities. The result is a strong album, but also one that shows signs of “finding its way” again. “Cygnus X-1” has never been a huge favorite of mine, probably because the outer-space story had been done so much better on 2112, and the intro is rather long and ponderous. But “Xanadu” is sublime, and “Closer to the Heart” is justifiably famous; it would become the band’s most cherished concert piece rivaling even “Tom Sawyer”.

Best Tracks: Xanadu, Closer to the Heart.

7. Counterparts. 1993. 4 stars. After the putrefying excrement that is Roll the Bones came this comeback album, and easily Rush’s best effort of the ’90s. The band was capitalizing on the alternative and grunge that was all the rage, but giving it even more bite. They hadn’t sounded this hard-hitting since the days of “Tom Sawyer”, and the first three songs (“Animate”, “Stick it Out”, and “Cut to the Chase”) are the most obvious examples and seem front-loaded to announce a blistering return to form. Counterparts also has plenty of the cutting-edge social commentary for which the band is renowned. “Nobody’s Hero” remains my favorite track, with the assertive guitar and lyrics which inspired the law-review article “Nobody’s Hero: On Equal Protection, Homosexuality, and National Security”. “Alien Shore” is another more subdued piece that interrogates race and gender differences. Some tracks are more lackluster, but on whole this is a terrific album.

Best Tracks: Animate, Nobody’s Hero.

8. Permanent Waves. 1980. 4 stars. It might seem a heresy to rank the album containing “The Spirit of Radio” outside the top three and give it anything less than a 5-star rating, but alas. The problem with Permanent Waves is that it just doesn’t measure up to the incredible track that kicks it off. It’s a very good album, to be sure, but it’s no Moving Pictures. Even “Free Will” isn’t as great as its reputation might lead you to believe. The album is destined to be defined by “The Spirit Of Radio”, and to an extent it should. It’s one of the best rock songs of all time (my second favorite Rush song after “Subdivisions”), and fitting that it was the first song of the first album released in a new decade (January 1, 1980). But many Rush fans treat the entire album like the equivalent of Peter Gabriel’s So… and it ain’t so. The three-part “Natural Science”, however, is a noble track, and it’s not as if any of the songs are lemons. Weighing all of this lands Permanent Waves near the top of my 4-star tier.

Best Tracks: The Spirit of Radio, Natural Science.

9. Grace Under Pressure. 1984. 4 stars. Back in the ’80s I was underwhelmed by this album. It struck me as by-the-numbers, and it didn’t help that “The Body Electric” was overplayed on Rock 101 FM; it’s not one of the better tracks. But Grace Under Pressure has aged rather well for me (just as Power Windows has depreciated in value; see below). Thematically it’s Rush’s bleakest album, about dystopian futures, and how humanity responds to external stress and survives the horrors of the world. It came out in the middle of Reagan and Thatcher era, when unemployment and inflation were revving up and the cold war was in full swing. People didn’t want to hear unpleasant songs when reality was so damn gloomy, and so the album wasn’t as successful as it deserved to be. “Red Sector A” is a particularly grim track about a captive in a Holocaust concentration camp; “Distant Early Warning” deals with threats like nuclear war and acid rain; and “The Enemy Within” is a frenetic paced song dealing with how fear works inside us.

Best Tracks: Red Sector A, Distant Early Warning.

10. Hemispheres. 1978. 3 ½ stars. Rush snobs will object to it placing this low, but for all its brilliance Hemispheres is a bit too cerebral. This is what happens when prog is pushed to extremes. The band members got so buried under their concepts here that the music lost its punch; even the best tracks are somewhat atonal. I’ve never been the biggest fan of “Cygnus X-1 Book II”, which continues the black hole story begun in Farewell to Kings but not as impressively. That said, the second half of Hemispheres is quite good: “Circumstances,” “The Trees”, and “La Villa Strangiato”, that last being the band’s best instrumental. “The Trees” is a libertarian piece which the band members have been somewhat embarrassed by when right-wingers (like Rand Paul) express their love for it. Maples clamor for equal rights with majestic oaks and thus doom the entire forest for their efforts — meaning we aren’t all equal in every way, and any attempt to artificially create universal equality is doomed to failure. A reasonable message and simple truth, that unfortunately is open to misuse.

Best Tracks: The Trees, Circumstances.

11. Presto. 1989. 3 ½ stars. This was Rush’s transition out of synth and back into “real” rock, but it’s a strange beast. A lot of the tracks alternate between sounding really good and, well, empty. I can’t get closure on Presto and had serious difficulty ranking it. I settled on the 11th slot with a 3 ½ rating, but some days I feel it deserves even higher, other days much lower. The album’s theme seems to have a real-world effect on the listener. The theme is “magic” — appearances vs. reality, illusions, the ways we pretend to be magical, or how problems don’t vanish with the “wave of a wand” — and it’s as if the illusion of the album’s greatness owes to magical enchantments sung into it by the band members. Tracks like “Presto”, “The Pass”, and “Hand Over Fist” sound awesome and inspiring, or strangely vacuous, depending on the fullness of the moon, so go figure. Rush worked some weird magic here all right.

Best Tracks: Show Don’t Tell, War Paint.

12. Power Windows. 1985. 3 ½ stars. Of the four synth albums, this one hasn’t aged so well. Back in the day I would have put it all the way up at #5 as a close tie with Hold Your Fire. I still consider “The Big Money” one of the best songs in the Rush canon, but strangely, most of the other songs on Power Windows sound like the same song recycled slightly differently. When I try humming the tune of “Middletown Dreams”, I find that I’m singing “Grand Designs”; etc. Also, there is a cheesy upbeat feel that tends to undermine the heavy social commentary. In this sense the album inverts the bleak and dystopian elements of Grace Under Pressure (which for me has grown better over time; see #8). Power Windows entertains utopian hopes, with redundant melodies that put me in mind of the electronica optimism of (wait for it) Owl City. I know that’s a brutally unfair analogy, and I’m not seriously suggesting this album is as bad as anything by Owl City. I still enjoy listening to it. But it’s not the piece of excellence I once thought.

Best Tracks: The Big Money, Manhattan Project.

13. Rush. 1974. 3 ½ stars. When Geddy Lee was asked to rank the band’s albums, he placed this one pretty high — above Fly by Night and Caress of Steel, to the disagreement of many fans. I agree with Lee. For all its fledgling deficiencies, Rush is a fine debut album. It’s certainly better than Caress of Steel (which I consider a dud) and I think it beats Fly by Night too, even if it’s less polished. It’s basically Rush pretending to be Led Zeppelin, and by the gods they do it well. Everyone likes “Working Man”, but for my money, the lead track “Finding My Way” is so damn good that it’s one of my favorite Rush songs. I suspect fans aren’t inclined to give this album a fair shake because Neal Peart hadn’t joined the band yet, and that’s unfortunate. If Hemispheres is Rush’s most overrated effort, this one is probably their most underappreciated.

Best Tracks: Finding My Way, Working Man.

14. Test for Echo. 1996. 3 stars. I’ve seen lists which rank this album at rock bottom, which is rather surprising. It’s true that a lot of the songs are stale and unimpressive; in fact there are only three good ones to speak of. The problem is that of those three, one is really good, and the opening (title) track is so good that it’s one of my favorite in the Rush canon. “Test for Echo” has one of the most infectious guitar melodies I’ve ever heard — eerie, unnerving, subtle, and hard-hitting all at once. The bum rap this album gets is all the more surprising when you consider that it offers exactly what fans had been demanding since the synth period: a return to the heavy guitar and drum sounds of Moving Pictures. That’s exactly what Test for Echo is; it’s even more heavy than Counterparts in this regard. That said, it has to be conceded that most of the songs are simply not good, regardless of the classic feel.

Best Tracks: Test for Echo, Resist.

15. Fly by Night. 1975. 3 stars. Like Test for Echo, the band’s sophomore album has three really good tracks, and the rest are crap. Part of the problem is that Rush was trying to do too many things and grow too fast, and they come off pretentious and amateur for their efforts. They slaughter Tolkien in the utterly boring “Rivendell”, and tracks like “Best I Can” and “Beneath, Between & Behind” are just as lame. On the other hand, the lead track “Anthem” is an excellent emulation of “Finding My Way” — a blistering hard-rock opening that certainly grabs attention. The nine-minute “By-Tor & the Snow Dog” is also very good and foreshadows the band’s future greatness. Then there is the title track “Fly by Night”, which is decent. Everything else, unfortunately, is forgettable if not painful to the ear.

Best Tracks: Anthem, By-Tor and the Snowdog.

16. Feedback. 2004. 2 ½ stars. I’m generally not a fan of cover albums. Rarely can an artist or band impressively reanimate songs on new terms — Annie Lennox’s Medusa, Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back, and The Killer’s interpretation of U2’s “Ultraviolet” are notable examples — but more often I find that cover creativity torpedoes the essence of what makes the original so good. In the case of Feedback, it’s the other problem: the songs are mere copycats of the originals, without virtually any spin at all, in which case what the hell is the goddamn point? It’s not that Rush’s performances are bad, rather that they come across as a wasted exercise. Die-hard Rush fans may enjoy hearing the band pay dues to their heroes, but the homages do very little for me.

17. Snakes & Arrows. 2007. 2 stars. When I first heard the lead track “Far Cry”, I was excited; Rush hadn’t had a decent album since ’96 (and even Test for Echo was far from excellent), and the back-to-basics approach announced in the reviews gave me incredibly high hopes for Snakes & Arrows. On top of that I thrilled to the album’s theme of religion, and the good and bad sides of faith. It was about time the band took on this subject. Snakes & Arrows, however, is a far cry from anything impressive after “Far Cry”. The rest of the album is a showcase for mundane melodies in which nothing stands out at all. “Working Them Angels” is a slight cut above the rest, but that’s it. This is without question the most disappointing Rush album in terms of the expectations I had for it. It may be an improvement over the misfire of Vapor Trails, but that’s not saying much.

18. Caress of Steel. 1975. 2 stars. Somewhat like Snakes & Arrows, it boasts a decent lead, “Bastille Day”, and then goes downhill. The two epics, “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain Of Lamneth”, are pure mediocrity, and that’s pretty much the entire album. It’s the album that nearly killed Rush, and who could have predicted the masterpiece that would follow next year. Yet I must acknowledge the irony: without the leg-work done on this album, the miracle of 2112 might not have been possible. And it does have its defenders, though I take them with a pound of salt; I think they’re trying to like something more than it deserves. Caress of Steel is underdeveloped and overextended — an understandable bump in the band’s early career that allowed them to learn from these errors and push forward to perfection.

19. Vapor Trails. 2002. 1 star. The original mix was panned for having a distorted and muddy sound, for which the 2013 remastered version is supposedly the remedy, but frankly Vapor Trails is so bad on its own merits that any attempt to salvage it by a remix amounts to little more than trying to polish a turd. And I feel small for saying that, because it was Neil Peart’s catharsis following the back-to-back deaths of his daughter (killed in a highway accident on her way back to university in ’97), and then his wife (from cancer in ’98). Peart had announced his retirement after that, but later got his second wind, and thanks to Vapor Trails we got the post-millennial renaissance of Rush that would yield Clockwork Angels (see #5). Dismal failures can pave the way to unexpected success, and that’s what this album did.

20. Roll the Bones. 1991. 1 star. If I could make music as artfully shitty as Roll the Bones, I’d be perversely proud. Unlike Vapor Trails which is just a stinking mess, the music here seems deliberately crafted to mock and infuriate. (Of course, some purists would describe Hold Your Fire in the same way, but synth haters are a benighted breed to themselves.) Those who make excuses for this album remind me of the apologists for U2’s Zooropa, another ’90s stinker from a great band that for whatever reason turned to appease the teenybopper crowd. The title track is the lead offender, and when Lee sings, “Why are we here? Because we’re here, roll the bones…” that refrain stands as the most embarrassing self-indictment I know of from any band. The theme of the album is chance and taking risks, and indeed the album itself was a risk that completely failed: there’s not a single decent song on it.