When it comes to evaluating religious materials, I can tend to be a little critical, so please keep that in mind as you read this.
As many have mentioned, this book is written as the defense of one man against the continual slander & attacks he faced in England after he left the Anglican Church for the Catholic Church. This defense of his life is credited with helping change the strong anti-Catholic sentiment in Britain.
In this country (USA) and at this time, it might be hard for us to many how intense & how small the English culture was in the 1800's. Sure, we've all read Victorian novels of some sort, but they usual focus on the genteel class & on their match-making process. O'Brian frequently mentions the bias against Catholics in his Master & Commander series, but - even so - I wasn't prepared for how much impact one man could have on a culture. The population was so small, the culture so homogenous, and the number of educated men so limited that Newman really succeeded in shaking up the people in his time. In turn, they condemned him & made his life somewhat difficult. With the sheer number of religions & faiths - not to mention famous people & ploys for attention - in our current culture this story of Newman's likely will not be repeated in our culture any time soon. It is a great look back into another culture, another time, another understanding of religion & the norm.
As for the writing itself, I unfortunately don't have the same praise that I've read from others on this page. I read the entire introduction, but I still was not well-suited enough (I guess) to pick up on the subtle personal revelations & turns of phrase that were supposed to make this so lyrical. He mentions many names, dates & texts that are obscure, hard to keep track of & generally irrelevant by the middle of the book. In fiction this would be considered bad form, though I know it was incredibly effective for him to include for the audience he was writing for at the time.
Additionally, I thought perhaps he acted a bit like a person used to being indulged towards the end of the text. It never crossed my mind until he kept going on for many pages about how tormented he was for years as he considered leaving the church. Don't get me wrong, I have also struggled with faith questions so hard & so long that I thought I would never come up for air. But, the reality is, that I had to. I had to get up for work. I had to pay my bills. I had responsibilities to my family & friends. Newman didn't have much on his plate during 1841-1845, when he wrestled most intensely.
I also thought that Newman acted a bit indulged in that he often asked "Why can't I have the privacy that most Englishmen are allowed while I wrestle with my faith" (paraphrased). At first I was incredibly sympathetic to this man...being someone who enjoys privacy myself. But then I began to think about his life as a whole. When he was young, he was sure he had "the answers" - i.e. the way to correct doctrine - and that it was his God-given call to influence the rest of England. He set about making himself a public figure...not that he wanted fame but that he felt he was someone who had the right & need to show the way for those who are more ignorant. Unfortunately for Newman, as he did more research, he learned that things were not as black-and-white as he originially claimed they were. Slowly he began pulling back more & more from the public spotlight...but he (and his movement) had made such a splash that the public naturally wanted to know where his approach to faith was leading him & why. If Newman had kept private about his convictions from the first, he would have been able to wrestle with them privately later...like any other Englishman.
That all said, I still do rate this title 4 stars. First off, the sheer amount of psycholigical, socioligical & religious information in this title is phenomenal. Also, Newman is nothing if not sincere...which surfaces constantly as he follows truth where it leads him. Such sincerity - showing where one has been wrong & why - seems to be rare...especially among religious non-fiction titles. Additionally, I think Newman wrote this for an incredibly suitable purpose. It's one of the rare books that I think would have left a gaping hole if it weren't written...not only in defending Newman's decisions, but also in the tapestry of Christian faith.
Personally I also deeply empathized with Newman's roller-coaster ride. For anyone who can tend to be zealous but perhaps also a bit impulsive or misguided, Newman's honesty, depth & journey are all a salve for wounded pride.
Written as a response to sladerous accusations of lying and insincerity, Cardinal Newman composed one of the best autobiographies in the English language. To properly defend himself, he develops the history of his religous opinions from his earliest memories, through Oxford movement and finally to his conversion to the Catholic Church. Along the way he gives the reader some of the best prose that has been employed to descrbe religious experience. The book concludes with a point-by-point refutation to the arguments of Rev. Kingsley, that incidentally contains some of the best arguments against Sola Scriptura and other guiding principles behind Protestantism.
After publication, Newman's Apologia helped raise the esteem of Catholics in the eyes of the English people and helped make him a Cardinal. I whole-heartedly recommend this to anyone looking for a moving spiritual autobiography.