MY BEST BUD’S A MORMON AND I’M NOT

I met the incomparable Kohl Glass when my wife, Tammin was shooting a film he was directing in Salt Lake City. And instantly, I was smitten.  Kohl and I bonded over our mutual love of comic books, movies, Star Wars, literature and truly all things conversation.  A distinct “bromance” blossomed and I instantly knew I made a new friend for life.  What was interesting to me – and to be honest, I still don’t recall at what point I became aware – was when Kohl shared his religious background.  Kohl is a Mormon.  Born and raised.  And while our backgrounds are extremely different, being his friend allowed me to have insight in to a faith I wasn’t very familiar with.  It also enhanced our conversations on the aforementioned subjects – and allowed me to appreciate that in differences, we can all embrace the uniqueness of the people in our lives.

I pushed our usual chit-chat over our favorite comic book writers and illustrators aside, and sat down with Kohl recently to talk about his faith – and most importantly, learn even more about my friend. – Sean McEwen

How were you exposed to the religion – what is you background?

I was born a Mormon. My mom comes from a long established Mormon family. My dad, on the other hand, was a convert to the Church when he was an adult. My dad was married before my mom, his first wife was LDS, that’s when he converted.He came in to it in his adult life, and my mom was born in it.

Growing up, my parents were pretty conservative, though a lot of my friend’s parents were much more strict. I’m the oldest of 7 and my mom had her hands full with my four youngest siblings (two of whom were twins and all who were under the age of 4) so she let us older kids run free, thus I didn’t have a lot of supervision growing up – but we had rules, guidelines, boundaries on what we could say, do, and watch – as an example, I remember watching an episode of Silver Spoons, where Ricky and a friend visit some girls in collage for the sole purpose of having sex, or something like that – it was just a conversation, nothing shown, but my mom rushed in and said “turn that off!”. Years later I finally saw the rest of that episode and it ended with Ricky deciding to wait until he could have sex with someone he could love and be committed to. It was actually a positive message with morals involved – morals my mom would have agreed with – but, back in the day, we had to turn it off.

That was kind of how it was growing up Mormon for me. There was a strong fear of corruption, even if it could lead to a stronger resolution for morality. Of course, as an adult, I see things much differently, and I just laugh at stories like this one. My parents were just trying to do everything they could to protect us. As a parent, myself, I can really appreciate that now.

I knew some Mormon parents that didn’t have a TV for that same reason. At that time I thought that was so extreme – but now I look at it as kind of cool. I kind of wish I didn’t have a TV sometimes. It’s a gutsy move, and I definitely don’t have the guts to cut myself off like that.

That said, when you are religious and you do something more “off the beaten trail” for lack of a better phrase, it’s very often seen by others as zealousness. For instance, I turn my cell phone off on Sundays. I do that because I read an article where you should have a day every week where you unplug and don’t use devices so your mind can decompress from all that distraction. But because I’m Mormon, I feel this insecure need to stress to people that it’s a choice made for my mental health than for my religion. I think Mormons are often seen as these naive zealots already and I don’t want them to think, “Mormons can’t use their phones on Sunday” when, trust me, Mormon do use their phones on Sunday. Just not this Mormon.

How are you different today with your faith than you were when you were a child?

I think my views on my religion, and religion in general, are very different now. I think that as a child, you get a system, which is very black and white – and I think all children need black and white – it’s hard to explain to a child that this is wrong and this is right . . . but sometimes its not. Your beliefs are threatened with collapse by the realization that there is much more to the world than the black and white you’ve been raised on.

I have a lot of friends who have left the Mormon church, for different reasons, but many have struggled to maintain their beliefs as the black and white world opens up to a more nuanced world. Once they see that what they were taught as children isn’t a perfect fit with the realities they are experiencing, they say none of it fits, and they are gone.

That has been my journey, where when I was younger, I had a blanketed belief – everything was true that I was being told – but now I see things as more allegorical than literal, and more compartmentalized than “all-or-nothing.” Sure, I was tempted to abandon it all like my friends, but instead I sifted through my beliefs one by one and soul searched for how my belief system still had relevance in world today, and I found, that they in large part do, just not in the same way when I was a child. Blanket beliefs don’t work in a nuanced world, so I had to make my beliefs nuanced.

What is your favorite thing about practicing Mormon traditions?

I’m gonna step back and tell you how I feel about religion in general, which will hopefully hit this question. I feel everyone has a set of beliefs and everyone functions off of those beliefs to live day to day. Sometimes we label it as “religion,” and sometimes we label it “personal beliefs,” but whatever these things do for an individual, from the most devoted religious to the most stanch atheists, they are all doing the same thing: philosophical fuel for how to interact with the world. When it comes to religion, meaning a belief in a higher power, the importance of this kind of stuff, the importance of ritual, culture and tradition, it connects us to purpose. Joseph Campbell says ritual is the way we interact with mythology. I feel like it’s important to feel connected to something that is bigger than I am.

In Mormonism, it starts with family. Mormonism always talks about your first and foremost responsibility being your family. Then after that, your community, then the human race. These priorities are not, by any means, exclusive to Mormons, but it is very important for Mormons to feel that they are working towards the quality of life of their neighbors, which, by the way, is everyone on the planet. Though we may be misguided at times as to how to accomplish this, I think it’s a really great thing to always be striving for. It gives you a sense that your life has a worthy purpose.

What is the more difficult thing about being a Mormon?

Mormonism requires a lot. Joseph Smith, who founded and restored the Mormon church, he said if a religion is going to change lives, it has to require a lot.

There are a lot of people who view Mormonism very casually, but in order for the Gospel to function to full potential in your life, it has to be hard to live. It’s a lot like a workout, you want to casually workout, sure, that’s great, but if you want to see real results, you have to commit. The down side is, because it requires so much, it’s easy to feel like you don’t and can never live up to it. It’s easy to constantly think, «I’m not cutting it. I’ll never cut it.” I sometimes feel that and it weighs on me. But then you eventually have to come to conclusion that you just have to do what you can do. Under no circumstances, does God want you to hate yourself.

I do a lot of service for my church but, and do all these requirements asked of Mormons, but never to the detriment of time with my family. I think people would say I’m a more casual Mormon because I refuse to let Mormonism get in the way of my family and providing for my family, and I think that perfectly fine since Mormonism is what gave me that resolve. I only have so many hours in the day, and as a filmmaker, I’m also trying to do something outside the ordinary 9 to 5 life with my career and goals. The financial salvation of my family is on my shoulders. For them, I have to give my career my all.

How do you think non-Mormons perceive or misperceive Mormonism?

I think, in just my experience, generally, if a person doesn’t have close contact with Mormonism, they generally will some have misconceptions about it. I think almost every Mormon person has gone through something where someone is talking about Mormons completely oblivious that they are talking to a Mormon. For example, one time I was in LA where I was introduced to a producer through a friend, and he asked me, “You live in Utah, right? What’s it like living with all those Mormons?” And it was super obvious that he thought living around Mormons would be awful. And I said, I’m a Mormon.And he was shocked. He thought we were like the Amish or something, dressing the same, having weird things we don’t do, very set apart from the world, all that.

I’ve read articles on the perceptions on Mormons, and in their studies they always start off asking, “Do you know any Mormons?“ and they’ll reply “Well, I know this guy at work, but he’s the exception. He’s ‘normal’, not weird like other the Mormons” In actuality, that one guy isn’t the expectation. Truth is, you probably know more Mormons than you realize. We’re everywhere., just like everyone else.

How has your faith affected you as a father?

As a father, I think it affects me tremendously. With any religion it is connecting you to something that is bigger. A lot of religions teach this, but Mormons believe that God is always there, is attentive, you can communicate with him about anything.

Everyone seems to have issues with their parents, to some degree, no matter how good of parents they were, and what breaks my heart is that it follows that my own little girl will probably, somewhere down the road, have issues with me as well. But all you can say is, I’m going to do my best and GOD lead me and guide me to where I need to be and what I need to do for this little girl. Then you just got to have a faith that everything will be good and turn out, and your kids won’t hate you too much.

How would you like to see yourself in ten years with your faith?

That’s really hard. I mean, if you were to look at me ten years ago, I was very different religiously, and yet I’m still in my faith today. In the last couple of years I’ve found myself in a new place that I really like.

I tend to not wear my religion on my sleeve because of the widespread misconceptions surrounding Mormons. I find myself preferring people find out that I’m a Mormon later, after they’ve gotten to know me first. But I do feel like it’s a very important part of my life – just like any part of me – I don’t want to hide those things from anyone. That wasn’t always true. There was a time I was so afraid of the misconceptions that I completely hid my religion away. Choosing to not face it instead if trying to correct the misconceptions.

But I’ve found a really nice balance in my life and my belief system, but I know I don’t want to stop evolving – So maybe I shouldn’t hope that I’m still here where I am now. So, to be honest, I have no clue where I’ll be in ten years. I am very internalized and I think about my beliefs a lot, and reflection causes of evolution. I wasn’t one of those “the Spirit came to me at 8 years old and said this is all true, and I’ve never doubted since.” While I respect people who are like that, I don’t think I’m even capable of that kind of faith if it had happened to me. I’ve had to reflect over the years and I think that’s brought me to a place of positive evolvement. My faith requires an element of doubt to function.

Have you seen “that” South Park episode?

I do know which one you are talking about, but I have not watched it. I generally don’t watch that show. I don’t have anything against it, I just never got in to it. But, I have had people tell me about the episode. The creators of South Park seem to tease and satirize everyone so I didn’t feel like they solely have a bone to pick with just Mormons.

Have you seen or heard about “The Book of Mormon” musical?

Completely sold out the whole time we were there!

I wish I could have seen it when it played here in SLC. I had Mormon friends who saw it on broadway and loved it. From what I understand, yes, they made fun of Mormons, but the end message IS something Mormons agree with.

I will be honest with you, if you take out the spiritual side of origins of Mormonism, it’s a very hard story to understand. I don’t blame the South Park guys for how they may have understand the stories of early Mormonism. Like, in the bible, if you take God out of the equation and look at it purely from a secular view, it can look quite silly. I completely understand how this story can be seen this way. But in same breath I can understand how it’s seen another way. It’s perspective. I don’t see the South Park episode or The Book of Mormon Musical as being offensive, what I understand of it doesn’t seem or feel offensive to me.

How does being a Mormon influence your choices in the entertainment industry?

I need to think for sec as this is a big subject and it means a lot to me as I work in the industry –

When I first told my mom that I wanted to study film, she got very excited and said, “you can make seminary films (movies that are generally about Jesus)!“ I just smiles and thought, that’s not for me in a million years. There are a lot of Mormon filmmakers who feel to justify working in such an ostensibly corrupt industry, they have to put their testimonies of the truthfulness of the Mormon church in a film for the world to see, but I’ve never felt that way and faith promoting stories never interested me that much. I need to say that my mom is very supportive in everything I do and I always feel a need to make sure she’d be okay with what I make. In fact, for a long time, my moral compass was, “What would my mom think of this?” Granted, my mom probably would have made me turn off the last film I made, The Stepsister (aka You May Now Kill the Bride) if I were watching it as a kid. But she also understands my need for opportunities to advance my career as well as just needing to pay the bills.

I think I am personally a bit more liberal compared to most Mormons, though I seriously have started to suspect that most Mormons feel this way. But on top of that, I’ve always kind of had a fascination with darkness, that religiously, I never knew what to do with. So, 7 or 8 years ago I really wanted to figure out what God wanted me to do with my creative endeavors and career as a filmmaker. What kind of films did God want me to make?

As I said before, Mormons feel like they have a big responsibility to serve the community and the world. I just needed to figure out how was going to doing that with filmmaking. The Mormon church, since its very beginnings, has been super supportive of the art – music, dancing, all this stuff – though there’s still a stigma that movies and TV is a waste of time, if not evil, and I knew film was the right path for me, but how was I supposed to use it to serve? So I spent a lot of time in prayer trying to figure this out and what I need to do with my career.

When I finally got my answer, it was simple and obvious: I need to tell the truth, and always tell it at the highest quality I can possible execute. This really resonated with me and my sensibilities because, like me, sometimes the truth is dark. Now, my choices are still tough, and just because it’s truthful doesn’t mean it’s for me. In some ways, I’ve moved from my mom’s sense of appropriateness to my wife, Chris’s. While my mom might not be able approve of what I make, It’s extremely important to me that my wife signs off on everything I do. And she’s not afraid to tell me if she doesn’t think a story is worthy for me to tell. She’s truth I am reaching for.

With this clarity, I know there’s a very good chance that some of my projects might cause some backlash in the Mormon community and even in my own family and friends. Despite what may seem obvious to them, I’m not abandoning my religion or my own morals. In reality, I am working from my morals and ideals. Everyone has their own path. All that to say, that’s how religion affects my career: no matter what I do I must always tell the truth, at the best quality possible. I believe I get that drive from God.

What should someone who’s never been to Salt Lake City know about that community and culture?

A lot of people think Mormons live in a bubble and Utah is that bubble, but that goes back to the common misconceptions of Mormonism. There are all the problems here. Because Mormons seem so protected they may appear to not have the wider range of life experiences, but in reality, and sometimes the sad reality, is that we have all the same issues and same harsh realities as everyone else. Yes, most cities here are set up to be very family orientated, but we are still locking our doors at night – crime is a problem. Please, just don’t look at Utah as vanilla ice cream – it’s like every state, every city every community, for good or bad.Some people in Utah would totally disagree with that, but that’s just my observation.