Traditional Churches, Born Again Christianity, and Pentecostalism

Religious Mobility and Religious Repertoires in Urban Kenya

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Yonatan N. Gez
Christianity and Renewal - Interdisciplinary Studies
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , September
     358 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Kenya, as in many Sub-Saharan African countries, religious affiliation is fluid, complex, and overlapping. Religious affiliations and identities are neither straightforward nor definitive, and they resist formal institutional and exclusivist categories. In Yonatan Gez’s words, “in Christian urban Kenya, religion tends to be lived in ways that significantly overflow the confines of a single, straightforward church membership” (9). This is the thrust of Gez’s argument in Traditional Churches, Born Again Christianity, and Pentecostalism: Religious Mobility and Religious Repertoires in Urban Kenya. Gez shows that “religious practices outside the borders of formal membership make up a significant portion of religious identity as lived in urban Kenya” (11). Indeed, Gez further argues that a dynamic, mobile, malleable, creative, self-fashioned religious identity is the norm rather than the exception in urban Kenya.

Against this backdrop, Gez develops a new approach, the “religious repertoire model,” a comprehensive theoretical perspective regarding religious mobility, affiliation, and identity in urban Kenya that accounts for the subtle relations and tensions between the institutional perspective and the actual behavior of autonomous actors (10). Gez writes: “The religious repertoire model evokes the geographic imagery of center and periphery to enable a comprehensive and dynamic mapping of individual practitioners’ religious identity in a way that is both diachronic and synchronic” (13).

The book is divided into four main parts consisting of nine chapters. The introduction (chapter 1), which precedes part 1, contextualizes the study by illustrating the challenges associated with “imagining clear-cut, straightforward, and exclusive religious identities” by juxtaposing Kenya’s 2009 census with five interviews of his interlocutors. Part 1 (chapters 2–3) focuses primarily on scholarly approaches to religious mobility. The “religious repertoire” model is introduced and fleshed out in this section. Part 2 (chapters 4–5), introduces Nairobi and Kisumu, the cites of the fieldwork, discusses the place of religion therein, and constructs the contours of Kenya’s “normative Christianity.” Part 3 (chapters 6–-8), concerns the application of the religious repertoire model in urban Kenya from the religious, social, and political perspectives. Here Gez deals with what he calls the “three levels of practice” which are the “pivot,” “periphery,” and “inactive forms” as a combined system. The pivot is “the central axis of one’s religious practice—and the ‘periphery’ of additional, secondary, and concurrent practices” (11). Inactive forms refer to “familiar religious forms which are excluded from the practitioner’s regular religious routine” (14). Also, it is in part 3 (chapter 8) that Gez synthesizes the “religious biographies” of five more interviewees while using them as examples for enfleshing the religious repertoire model. Part 4 (chapter 9) concludes the book.

The greatest part of this book is Gez’s discussion of the “religious repertoire” model itself, and his three intertwined degrees of practices—that is, the “pivot” and “two kinds of peripheries,” the “unfamiliar domain” and the “inactive domain” (79). The religious repertoire model is defined as “a given arrangement of all religious forms familiar to the practitioner” (66). The religious repertoire approach thus “considers religious forms as stable units, which may (re)emerge” and fade within the personal landscape of practitioners’ religious identity depending upon actual degrees of practice (66). As I earlier indicated briefly, according to Gez, the “pivot represents the religious form most persistently practiced; the periphery represents forms practiced with lesser intensity; and the inactive forms refer to religious traditions and denominations that, although presently unpracticed, have been practiced in the past and have thus maintained their potentiality for reengagement” (13).

Gez’s three degrees of practice stems from his departure from the binary terms of “practiced” and “unpracticed religious forms” (13, 202–223). Instead of a binary, Gez suggests a three-pronged approach that focuses on “the practiced, the unfamiliar, and the familiar-yet-currently unpracticed” religious forms (14). The term “religious form” refers to the “strands of institutional religious traditions and denominations that a practitioner may engage with” (11). “Religious forms” are also the “basic unit of religious engagement that is the primary institutional building blocks of religious identity” (16). The religious repertoire approach to religious mobility does take the practitioners past religious practices into consideration since they are often latent but significant.

For Gez, the “religious repertoire” model is more than a mere conceptual framework but rather a theoretical toolkit that provides “particular postulations about the complexity of religious identity, the functioning of actors’ religious identity as integral part of a single, dynamic system” (11). Gez’s trident approach is useful because it offers a more comprehensive way in understanding the religious bricolage of urban Kenyans. Not only does the religious repertoire model capture practitioners past religious practices but also provides an innovative theoretical tool for research on lived religion and religious mobility.

In my view, Gez’s religious repertoire model is, however, limited by its predominant focus on Christianity in Nairobi and Kisumu. The diagram provided in the appendix of the book is quite helpful in unpacking the interrelationship between the institutional and practitioners’ religious repertoires.

Gez does well to give us a view of the complex nature of Kenya’s contemporary Christian landscape and how practitioners negotiate and renegotiate their religious identities. The book is a fine balance between empirical data and theoretical construction of practitioners’ actual lived religion in urban Kenya.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aidan Kwame Ahaligah is a Lecturer in Systematic Theology and African theology at Christ College, London, UK.

Date of Review: 
November 25, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Yonatan N. Gez is Fellow at the Martin Buber Society of Fellows in the Humanities and Social Sciences and a Research Fellow at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.


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