The Certificate in Theology and the Arts (CTA) offers M.Div., M.T.S., and Th.M. students firm grounding in the key theological loci and practices relevant to a lifetime’s engagement with the arts in the church, the university, and beyond.
Our certificate students come from a variety of professional and academic backgrounds and contribute meaningfully to the theology and arts community at Duke Divinity School. We are excited to share more about some of our students in our Certificate Feature Series, where we interview our students and alumni and hear about their experiences in the Certificate program and how it is has impacted their visions for vocation beyond DITA and Duke Divinity School.
Art as a Medium for Interfaith Missions
Certificate in Theology and the Arts
Sujatha Balasundaram (M.T.S. ’23) is a visual artist, creative consultant, and student. A native of India, her creative work blends patterns from Indian folk and tribal art with theological and Christian themes. Balasundaram sees art as a communal and healing practice and offers a wide variety of creative services to the public, the church, and schools, such as integrative curriculum, online workshops, and creative webinars. She entered Duke Divinity in 2021, after moving internationally with her family from India, and has since found a home at DITA, the Asian House of Studies, and the New Creation Arts student body group. We are delighted to share more about her experience at Duke Divinity and DITA through our Certificate Feature Series. Learn more about her at artresponses.com.
What brought you to Duke Divinity and the Certificate in Theology and the Arts? Tell us a little bit about yourself prior to your time here at Duke Divinity.In Joshua chapter 4, God tells the Israelites to place stones from the bed of the Jordan River on the shore. This sculpture of stones created a narrative for the Israelites. They were meant to mark, describe, and commemorate how God held the waters back to let them cross the river on dry land. Like the Israelites in Joshua 4, I theologized through my art. I shared my artistic reflections of scriptures and prayers with a global audience through artresponses.com. Over the years, the responses to the art works has increased and the responses have also gotten increasingly challenging. Many Christians could not accept art works that used Indian motifs and symbols. The challenge was addressing the theology of the art. I sensed the need to be better equipped.
My husband, who taught at a seminary in India then, encouraged me to consider Duke Divinity School and the Certificate in Theology and the Arts. DITA’s commitment to integrating theology and the arts resonated with my vision to use visual arts, particularly local folk arts, in spiritual formation and discipleship. In 2020, I put out my fleece, like Gideon in the Bible. I told God I would pursue theological education if he provided the way forward, which included many roadblocks, such as acquiring a unique visa for our family. Then COVID and the lockdowns hit. But God, in God’s miraculous way, took us through several hurdles to get us to Durham, NC, in 2021. God healed my daughter from COVID during its peak in India and provided timely appointments for passport renewals, visas, and mandatory COVID vaccines during the vaccine shortage in India. He even carried us through as we waited for the international ban on air travel from India to be lifted. So it is nothing short of the mighty hand of God that brought me to Duke Divinity and DITA.
How has the Certificate coursework shaped both your academic thinking and your art? Tell us a bit about your time here at DITA so far.
DITA coursework has shaped me in the classroom and beyond. As Dr. Colón-Emeric said at my orientation, the coursework has led me from the mountain of contemplation to the valley of action. Through my arts coursework, I have integrated action and contemplation, academic study and Christian practice, both personally in my own artwork and for the community.
In fall 2022, I took Theology and the Arts with Dr. Dan Train. As a part of the course requirements, my group designed a project to take the arts (audio, visual, and dance) to assisted living facilities. Later on, in December, my fellow students and I visited residents with dementia in an assisted living facility and were given a chance to work out our project. We sang carols and Christmas songs, danced with residents, and listened to them. It was as if we breathed life into the pages of that project.
Dr. Anderson’s course on visual theology has taught me new ways of seeing Indian folk and tribal art and has shaped my own practice of art. Inculturation and interfaith dialogue through art are now prominent themes in my research and art. I am delighted that the Yale Graduate Conference in Religion and Ecology will feature my visual exegesis of Genesis 1–2 and Ezekiel 47. Influenced by Indian tribal and folk art, these artworks theologize what it means to participate with God in the care and keeping of God’s world and represent reflections born as fruits of my time studying visual theology at DITA.
Can you identify a critical moment thus far in the Certificate program that has clarified your academic thinking and theological affections? Perhaps a particular course or thinker has proved meaningful, or has there been a semester where your training has converged in a formative way?The independent study on the Survey of Christian Art in India under Dr. Jonathan Anderson has proved critical for my thinking and practice as an artist. Dr. Anderson’s guidance in this directed study helped me see how visual art has been used for political, cultural, and religious advancement in India—themes that were continued in his visual art course, which I took later in the program. The research in this area forced me to consider inculturation and its challenges, and what it would mean to do interfaith dialogue through folk art. His guidance in thinking through missions and theology through the lens of visual art were deeply impactful for my creative work and my theological formation.
I now ponder many questions when I both view art and create my own art. How does art create a narrative? How can it be used to both further an agenda and to challenge the status quo? How might my art ask questions that challenge harmful practices? These and many other questions resonate in my thinking and my work.
As well, the classes in my third semester (Visual Theology, Exegesis of Genesis, and Theology and the Arts) came together beautifully, offering insight into the role of the arts in the two areas of intercultural work and interfaith dialogue. I do not have all the answers, but I have questions to help me keep pressing into the heart of God. The privilege of studying has been a journey of transformation filled with new vocabulary and fresh insight into God’s heart.
What do you hope to do beyond your time at the Divinity School? Has the Certificate program equipped you for that vocation? Has it changed how you view your vocational journey?
Just as my time at DITA has been shaped by collaboration and inter-disciplinary work and study, my aspirations for work beyond Duke Divinity School are multifaceted, and I hope will help me continue the journey from the peak of contemplation to the valley of action. One of the fulfilling moments at Duke Divinity has been facilitating the Student Art gallery. The gallery created a space for artistic expression and invited fellow students to pause and contemplate. For some, the integration of art and theology was an eye-opener. Others expressed interest in using the arts in worship spaces. After this meaningful experience, I hope to continue creating spaces for God-encounters through the arts. I also want to continue to pursue spaces for interfaith dialogue through art. Dr. Jonathan Anderson has inspired and empowered me to see with a renewed mind the theology of the artwork alongside scripture and other theological texts, and I am eager to incorporate this in interfaith dialogue.
Lastly, I aspire to teach visual theology and visual exegesis in addition to creating more art. Before arriving at DITA, I had many theological reflections about art and my own work specifically, but now, I feel especially equipped to teach robust courses and lead thorough conversations about the interplay of visual theology and art. I also feel equipped to pursue this work in my own art, and I hope what I create serves as a space to learn about the work and action of God.
At DITA, we strive to foster a supportive community of academics and artists from a variety of backgrounds and interests. What role have the arts played in helping you find community at the Divinity School? How has this community enriched your studies, sense of vocation, and formation?
There are many ways the DITA community has proved meaningful for my studies and my creative practice.
Dr. Train has been supportive and instrumental in creating the community of artists at Duke Divinity. His course Theology and the Arts serves as a welcoming space for students to explore the intersection between theology and the arts and was instrumental in forming my Christian artistic imagination. The New Creation Arts student body has been an enriching intercultural experience at Duke. This collection of artists from a variety of backgrounds and professions has infused my work and study with curiosity and energy. Facilitating this group has also made me aware of the needs and struggles facing artists of faith. Lastly, a Duke Divinity alumnus asked if the arts community at Duke Divinity could extend support for graduates, and the alumni office thus provided me with a unique and valuable chance to use my training to support DITA alumni in their work beyond the Divinity School. Being a part of DITA has been instrumental in networking with people in a variety of professional and academic settings. By bringing together artists and theologians, DITA has given students such as myself the space to dream and experiment with different ideas both within and without the Divinity School. It has been a very enriching community.
Would you encourage prospective students to pursue the Certificate in Theology and the Arts? What word of advice and support would you offer incoming students?
I would strongly recommend students pursue the Certificate in Theology and the Arts. I would advise incoming students to expose themselves to an alternate way of seeing and knowing God and his world through the courses offered in the Certificate program and cannot underscore how richly the Certificate program—through its courses and faculty—has supplied me with energy, creativity, and the academic training to integrate my faith and my art for the good of the Christian community.
“Forgiven” / 2019 / Pen and ink drawing “The Net” / 2015 / Pen and ink drawing “The Seed” / 2015 / Pen and ink drawing
“Forgiven” / 2019 / Pen and ink drawing
“The Net” / 2015 / Pen and ink drawing
“The Seed” / 2015 / Pen and ink drawing