My Big, Fat, Greek Mystery

To the faithful, there was nothing new about hearing an ancient litany in Greek.

But it wasn't business as usual for Gregory Waynick, who was planning to be a Southern Baptist pastor until his studies in history and theology led him into Eastern Orthodoxy. As a young deacon in Nashville, he was terrified the first time he tried to sing a few lines of Greek chant.

"I'm sure my pronunciation was pretty sad," he said. "But when I looked up, I saw that all of the little old Greek ladies had tears in their eyes. They were so moved that I was even trying to speak a little bit of their language. They responded so warmly to all of my attempts to understand their language and lives."

As a convert, Waynick flashed back to that scene in his life and many others after seeing the movie "My, Big, Fat Greek Wedding." Most of the memories were good, but not all. An older Greek priest bluntly once told him that Bible-Belt Americans didn't belong in the Orthodox faith.

It was faith, not marriage that brought Waynick into the Eastern church. Still, he said the hit romantic comedy is surprisingly accurate in its portrayal of a proud, protective community in which the lines between culture and faith are constantly blurred.

"Their faith is something they don't think about. It's at the subconscious level," said Waynick, who is now a priest in the thriving St. Mark's Greek Orthodox Church in Boca Raton, Fla. "The problem is that when that culture begins to fade in their children -- the language, the traditions -- they may have little to hang on to in terms of their faith."

"My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding" is about a young Greek woman named Toula Portokalos who falls for a white-bread vegetarian Anglo man. The movie cost only $5 million and debuted April 21 on 108 screens. Now it's on 1,764 screens and is asking if Nia Vardalos and her wacky family movie will gross $175 million in American ticket sales.

Studio executives tried to convince the actress to go with the demographic flow and turn her screenplay into a big, fat Italian or big, fat Hispanic wedding.

But Vardalos had a secret weapon named Margarita Ibrahimoff, the daughter of a Greek-born father and a mother who grew up in a Greek village on the Albanian border. This particular Greek girl turned Hollywood player is best known by another name -- Rita Wilson. It helps that Wilson married a non-Greek man named Tom Hanks.

Obviously, the team that produced "My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding" understood this emotional terrain, said Dean Popps, a national leader in networks of Greek Orthodox laypeople. The cliches were dead-on target and most Greeks will laugh and be thankful that mainstream America has acknowledged their existence. But the movie treats the church as a mere visual prop.

"It's good that someone is saying, 'It's OK to be Greek. It's OK to be Orthodox,' " said Popps. "But at the same time, it's a bit awkward. I mean, take Hanks. He's a great actor, but does he know anything about Orthodoxy? When it comes to issues like abortion and sexuality, he opposes everything the church has taught for centuries. ...

"I mean it's one thing to like our culture. But this faith is something you're supposed to live out in your daily life."

This tension is symbolized in one of the movie's few serious moments, when Toula's fiance is baptized in a rite that is a complete mystery to him. Afterwards, he shows her his new cross and says, "I'm Greek now."

The crucial question, said Waynick, is whether those whose lives are rooted in Greek culture and traditions will be able to pass on a living faith to their children. It will not be enough to simply go through the motions.

"Times have changed and their children will not remain Orthodox just because their parents are Greek," he said. "It's not enough to sing a few Greek hymns, when your kids are sticking Eminem into the CD players in their sports cars and moving in with their American girlfriends. ...

"They will have to claim the faith as their own and their churches will have to help them do that."