The phrase can be taken literally or figuratively. We have a literal “belfry” or bell tower at DaySpring church. A bell tower was once said to be the third part of the urban landscape in England (I don’t know what the first and second were!). The bell tower came to symbolize wealth in the town where it was located.
However, it is apparently a myth that you can have bats live in a belfry. Bats like to be where it is warm—in nooks and crannies—and not in the wind of the belfry. But wait, what is a cranny?
Figuratively, if you have “bats in the belfry” it can mean that you are a little crazy. In this idiom, the belfry is your brain and the bats flying around in it are your weird thoughts.
There are many idioms for being crazy and here are a couple of British ones:
You’ve got too many pages stuck together
You’re one summer short of a picnic
You’re three tomatoes short of a salad
Some of our more common American idioms for being crazy, or at least a little “short” are:
Lost his/her marbles; Has a screw loose
A couple of bricks short of a load; A few cards short of a deck, etc.
A few sandwiches short of a picnic basket
The latter is similar to the British a “summer short of a picnic,” perhaps demonstrating our fondness for picnics that are not lacking sunshine or sandwiches.
The Aussies have a great one:
A few kangaroos loose in the top paddock
But how do we know if someone is crazy or only slightly so? Aren’t we all a bit “different” in some respects? My father-in-law liked his cornflakes with coffee on them, instead of milk. He wasn’t crazy, but that eating habit was “different” at least from mine. There are legal definitions for insanity, madness, being a lunatic and simply crazy and most include some reference to “mental health” (and using the politically correct words or phrases for such a condition.)
Merriam-Webster gives three meanings of “crazy”: 1) having a diseased or abnormal mind; 2) not sensible or logical; 3) very excited or pleased.
However, I am immediately confronted with the question: What does it mean to be “normal” and have a “normal mind”? What kind of “sense” and “logic” are we talking about? Am I “normal”? It may depend on who you ask!
Pursing meanings and definitions entail a web of words, all intertwined in some way. Someone has flaws, they are shaky, and so on. We go from crazy to insane, deranged, psychopathic, and on and on. Perhaps suggesting a hierarchy: Normal > Different > Odd > Eccentric > Crazy > Insane > Psychopathic, and your hierarchy may have Uncle Charlie somewhere in the middle.
We circle back to the question: What is normal? One definition is that it is being typical or acting in an expected way. But surely this is cultural. In Waco no one typically eats rat or dog, but in many parts of the world people do. We don’t eat horse meat, the French (I am told) do. My family does not expect to eat raw fish, but the Japanese do. Neither we nor the Japanese would be defined as “crazy” or “lunatics” because of our eating or other cultural habits.
We have been in the throes of a Covid epidemic and people are wanting to “get some normality” back into their lives. Perhaps they mean an “average” amount of sickness, income, problems, and so on. Usually, the words “average” or “normal”, refer to a statistical figure. In the Netherlands, for example, in 2023 the average height of a man was 6 feet, and a woman was 5.7. In the U.S. the figures are lower, but the age and weight variables must be considered.
I won’t take the concepts of “normal” or “average” further because they have little to do with “bats in the belfry” or being: silly, senseless, wild, cracked, bizarre, peculiar, weird, zany or daft.
In 1 Samuel 21.13 we read that David “pretended to be insane in their presence; and while he was in their hands he acted like a madman, making marks on the doors of the gate and letting saliva run down his beard.” “Normal” people didn’t act like that.
Festus accused Paul of being insane from his ‘great learning” (Acts 26.24) but Paul replied that what he was saying was “true and reasonable” (v.25). Truth and wisdom were not a part of insanity. In fact, the writer of Ecclesiastes “turned my mind to understand, to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things and to understand the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly” (7.25).
That is the best way to get the bats out of the belfry.