The Screwtape Letters

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The Screwtape Letters Letter XXVII Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Screwtape criticizes Wormwood for doing very little to tempt the patient. Wormwood has tried to distract the patient from thoughts of God by encouraging him to think only of love. But this has been counterproductive, because when the patient prays, the subject of his prayers is precisely his failure to think about God sufficiently. This means that Wormwood has failed to truly distract the patient from his Christian faith.
Screwtape reveals that the patient has not become suffused with arrogance, as Screwtape had suspected he might. Instead, he continues to acknowledge his weaknesses and limitations to the Lord, and keeps praying for improvement.
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Screwtape suggests a new way of tempting the patient: “petitionary” prayers. These are prayers in which the patient asks for specific things, such as health or peace in the war. Because he is in love, however, the patient may indulge in “false spirituality”—he may make non-petitionary prayers to God. This is good for devils, since God commands Christians to pray for bread and health, rather than for abstract things. Another way that Wormwood can corrupt the patient is to fill him with doubts about the effectiveness of petitionary prayer. If the patient prays for a thing and receives it, then he will assume that it was he alone who did the work that led to his gaining the thing, not God. If, on the other hand, the patient prays for something and doesn’t receive it, then he will conclude that prayer does not work.
Lewis leaves the problem of prayer almost until the end of his novel. In part, this is because prayer is one of the most challenging parts of Christianity for outsiders to understand. While Lewis doesn’t say outright that prayer always works—if it’s petitionary—he does imply that people are wrong for doubting that prayer works. The implication is that everyday, petitionary prayer does work, provided that people pray for things they genuinely need, and allow sufficient time for their prayers to be answered.
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It is strange, Screwtape tells Wormwood, that people don’t have more trust and respect for prayer. While devils and angels stand outside of time and see that prayer works when given enough time, humans live in the present and process slowly toward the future, meaning that they’re often unable to see the causal link between their prayers and the answering of those prayers. There are some “meddlesome” Western authors, such as Boethius, who have already pointed out this very problem in the human appreciation of prayer. Nevertheless, writers of this kind usually lived so long ago that they’re not taken seriously, due in part to the devils’ promulgation of the “Historical Point of View.” When modern people study writers who lived long ago, they almost never discuss the validity of their arguments—instead, they talk about their culture, their lives, etc. As a result of the Historical Point of View, most people in the Western world distrust prayer, and indeed, regard history as “bunk.”
Lewis has already alluded to the thinking of Boethius, the late classical philosopher who proposed that a Christian God could see all of time simultaneously. Here he explicitly mentions Boethius, bemoaning the fact that modern thinkers ignore Boethius just because he lived a long time ago. This ignorance is only another manifestation of the general bias against the past that Lewis has already identified. Because intellectuals are loyal to the ideals of progress, Communism, Darwinism, etc., they turn their backs on the past and call it irrelevant.
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