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A review of Choosing Joy by Dr Donald Mowat, Retired NHS GP and Psychiatrist


What facets of the young Scot’s family and cultural life most nourish the human spirit? What roles should education and religion play? How have we come to understand God in modern Scotland, and what price love and family ties?

A courageous John Dempster faces these alarming and brave questions as he describes a long and difficult navigation through his young life in late 20th century West Scotland, battling against an unrelenting and austere Christian legacy. As he emerges from darkness into the sunnier uplands of love and his own family life, we his readers find deep resonance with our own shadowy experiences of cultural conventions, family and institutional life.

Personally, I found this modern Scottish narrative both familiar and encouraging; but with the professional eye of a former psychiatrist and GP, John’s courage, determination and ability to forgive as he relentlessly prioritises character development beyond mental illness, strike me as heroic. Forgive my mixture of Hanseatic languages, but “Scots wha hae angst” should read this book!

A review of Choosing Joy by Neil Dickson,  Editor, Brethren Historical Review


Anyone brought up in a conservative evangelical family in Scotland before the final decades of last century will recognise much here. The parental prohibitions and fears, the pressure to conform, the cultural narrowness.


But for many the late twentieth century was a time of transformation, especially for someone with interests in the arts, as Scottish evangelicalism gradually broadened and opened.


But what makes John Dempster’s experience distinctive is his struggles with the dark shadows of anxiety and depression, which he treats in this account with an unusual frankness. His is a story of moving towards the light, as he embraces the Christian faith as his own. His is a story of a series of choices - of choosing joy.

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Graham Bullen, Novelist. Author of The Quarant and The Broch  writes about Choosing Joy:

John’s story, while centred primarily on his quest for spiritual certainty, is not just for those on similar journeys. At its heart, it’s really the story of a young boy of the 1950s and 60s, seeking to find his way through the perils of challenging parental relationships, recurring waves of crippling self-doubt and anxiety, and a desire to find a way to meet the demands of others while retaining his own sense of his identity. 

Will he find the love he most desperately seeks? You’ll find yourself shouting to him across the pages, urging him on, warning him, wanting him to break out of the cycles in which he is caught and emerge from his journey unharmed. 

The intellectual, self-deprecating charm of his writing and the beautifully chosen anecdotes and observations enhance the telling of his story, a universal, humane and genuinely moving one.

Review from Marion Sommerville on Amazon


This is an unflinchingly honest account of a spiritual struggle to find a personal, authentic path to God. I was deeply touched by John's bravery in confronting what was, for many of us, a dismal and often soul-destroying journey to conform to 'the' right way, as it was perceived by our church elders. Imagine my surprise as I turned the pages and found for the first time, that someone else had been as conflicted and confused as I was . . . wanting to be accepted in the spiritual community but realising that this largely depended on turning our backs totally on the secular world.

As a youngster, I knew John at a distance, through attending the same school and (for a time) church, and only recently (after five decades) made virtual contact through social media. He has written the story of so many of us who were turned off by the narrow-mindedness and intransigence of those who should have been guides and mentors. I truly recognised his pain and puzzlement as he tried to make sense of it all. I am delighted for him that he pushed through the difficulties and finally found his joy. 

The picture is of the Martin Memorial Baptist Church in Carluke: Marion (a little younger than me) and I were both children/teenagers in this church in the 1960s.

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Review from  Clark Cothern II

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Iain Macritchie, former head of Chaplaincy for NHS Scotland, and now Priest in Charge at St Michael and All Angels, Inverness contributes a foreword to Choosing Joy in which he describes the book as:

'a tremendously affirming offering to people of faith everywhere, encouraging us  all to “trust the process” and engage with our own spiritual journeys, wherever they take us.’

Steve Aisthorpe, Church of Scotland Mission Development Worker, Author of The Invisible Church and Rewilding the Church writes:

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In Choosing Joy, John shares a story that is at once both ordinary and remarkable. Like many of his generation, he has been on a lifelong journey of reconsidering the faith he inherited in childhood. However, the honesty and sensitivity that characterise both his seeking and writing are remarkable.


Through seven decades of wondering and wrestling we witness a gradually expanding vision and a deepening experience of the one he comes to know as the Great Love, the source of joy.


Choosing Joy is a work of integrity and courage, soul-stirring and faith-enhancing.


Author Brian Devlin writes: Choosing Joy is ''a phenomenal and moving story, so well told'

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Carol Muirhead writes:

"Choosing Joy " is a wonderful, well-written memoir of a 1950-60s Scottish upbringing, through Glasgow University and a career in librarianship both in the Central belt, and the Highlands.


Its loosely chronological structure is infused with stimulating theological ideas, as the author dances on the edge of faith, doubt and reaffirmation. The "Yes moments" are insightful and well-referenced.


This very human and vulnerable life story also captures the almost mystical joy which occasionally breaks through an undercurrent of severe anxiety and disconnection; as God reveals himself to a complicated believer.


Seldom has a memoir created such an intensely realistic sense of character. Of interest to anyone with an interest in faith journeys, Scottish life and human dilemmas. I loved it!

Review from Amazon

This is a brave, beautifully written, and thought-provoking book. John Dempster writes with eloquence and passion of his ongoing struggle with faith, with his evangelical upbringing, and with his mental health. It was a pleasure to accompany the writer on his journey. I laughed and cried, shared his deep despair and frustration, and his joy. At the end, John writes of his doubts about publishing the book. I’m so glad he chose to own and share the story. I’m so glad he continues to choose joy.

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Review from Dot Walker in the Beloved Listener Lounge

I’ve just finished reading Beloved Listener John Dempster’s autobiographical book Choosing Joy. It’s intimate, raw and vulnerable, had me in tears at points and laughing at other points. I related to it on many levels, coming from a somewhat similar brethren background, with its terrifying absolutes, and trying to find a positive connection with God while dancing on the edge of faith and doubt. I think for me the main takeaway was a real insight into the life of someone who struggles with anxiety and depression, in combination with church and the evangelical mindset. I’m not a member of the book group but think it’s worthy of consideration. I salute you John, for choosing joy on a daily basis, and for being brave enough to publish this memoir.

(The photo is the 'Brethren' Church I attended with my parents in my late teens)

Because I have been fortunate to have enjoyed several meaningful face-to-face conversations with John Dempster in my three visits to Scotland, and because I am aware of John’s reluctance to say much about himself, I was delighted that, in this memoir, he holds back the curtain a bit.


He sets the stage especially well by offering delightful childhood recollections. The patchwork scenes of formative childhood experiences are craftily handstitched together with threads of elegantly crafted sentences.


A reader becomes shyly invited into a scene, and because every reader was once young, they can each empathize with John’s reactions to stressful situations.


John wields understated wit well. As an example, his parents had asked young John if he might want some roller skates. His response: “I was untroubled by any sense of need for wheels on my feet.”


John’s retrospective self-awareness allows the reader to first see and then feel the complexity of human character developing as they are drawn through scenes both tranquil and troubled, sprinkled with moments of acceptance and contentment, and thrust into moments of inner terror as a young Dempster develops a neurotic fear of falling short of authority, first of his father, and then projected onto the most terrifying authority of all, God’s.


I agonize with John over the development of certain coping mechanisms, some of which make it difficult to find peace in the one place where peace is allegedly offered, the church.


I won’t offer a spoiler alert, but I will say that I found John’s journey, and his conclusions, satisfying and refreshing. The vocabulary of my own faith journey has been enriched as John has allowed me to walk with him through this book.


I do hope you’ll take that walk as well. I believe you’re likely to find a friend along the way.

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